Does the FDA’s ‘break­through’ drug pro­gram need to be re­formed? Har­vard skep­tics say yes

Of all the ex­pe­dit­ed re­view pro­grams that the FDA has set up, none are as pop­u­lar as the “break­through” ther­a­py des­ig­na­tion. And a group of high-pro­file skep­tics says that has cre­at­ed some prob­lems that need to be ad­dressed.

Jonathan Dar­row

Writ­ing in the New Eng­land Jour­nal of Med­i­cine, Har­vard’s Jonathan Dar­row, Jer­ry Avorn and Aaron Kessel­heim spell out how the BTD pro­gram has tak­en hold in the near­ly 6 years since it was cre­at­ed by Con­gress, with each pass­ing year scor­ing high­er on the per­cent­age of new drug ap­provals go­ing to a break­through ther­a­py.

It’s not hard to see why. They write:

In car­ry­ing out its di­rec­tions from Con­gress, the FDA de­vel­oped poli­cies that were ap­plic­a­ble to break­through-des­ig­nat­ed ther­a­pies: the agency cre­at­ed well-de­fined staff re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, short­ened its re­sponse times, and of­fered in­ten­sive guid­ance to cor­po­rate ap­pli­cants. For ex­am­ple, un­der this pro­gram, the FDA has ad­vised spon­sors about in­ter­im analy­ses, meth­ods for da­ta bridg­ing be­tween stud­ies, study-size re­duc­tion, and cus­tom-de­signed end points. The FDA re­sponse time­lines are 60 days or less for many break­through-re­lat­ed sub­mis­sions, and dis­cus­sion of cer­tain top­ics, such as pro­pri­etary names, man­u­fac­tur­ing in­spec­tions, and post­mar­ket­ing stud­ies, can be­gin ear­li­er in the de­vel­op­ment process.

Jer­ry Avorn

And that ap­proach has de­liv­ered big gains for bio­phar­ma com­panuies. In a field where shav­ing off a few months in the de­vel­op­ment cy­cle can be a big ad­van­tage — worth well over $100 mil­lion for the com­pa­nies that buy pri­or­i­ty re­view vouch­ers — the BTD pro­gram can slice years off the process. The au­thors cite one re­port un­der­scor­ing an av­er­age 4.8-year de­vel­op­ment pe­ri­od for break­through drugs, com­pared to 8 years for non-ex­pe­dit­ed ther­a­pies.

In­creas­ing­ly, the crit­ics note, the agency is ap­prov­ing break­through drugs on less and less da­ta, leav­ing their rel­a­tive val­ue over cur­rent ther­a­pies untest­ed and un­cer­tain. (This is some­thing I wrote about ear­li­er re­lat­ed to the FDA’s in­creased ea­ger­ness to stamp an OK on a drug af­ter a sin­gle study, rather than re­ly on the twin study stan­dard that has been the hall­mark of an R&D gold stan­dard.)

Over­all, of the 31 break­through-des­ig­nat­ed ther­a­pies, 16 (52%) (in­clud­ing 12 [75%] of 16 on­col­o­gy drugs) were ap­proved on the ba­sis of phase 1 or phase 2 da­ta, 14 (45%) (in­clud­ing 12 [75%] of 16 on­col­o­gy drugs) were sup­port­ed by on­ly a sin­gle piv­otal tri­al, and 13 (42%) (in­clud­ing 10 [63%] of 16 on­col­o­gy drugs) were ap­proved on the ba­sis of ei­ther non–con­cur­rent­ly con­trolled or dose-com­par­i­son tri­als.

Aaron Kessel­heim

And the au­thors say that call­ing these drugs break­throughs has spurred the pop­u­lar press to seize on these new ther­a­pies as ground­break­ing game-chang­ers, even cures, when they are any­thing but. In fact, giv­en that the agency of­ten hands out these des­ig­na­tions ear­ly on, the drugs they deem wor­thy of VIP ser­vice don’t mea­sure up.

Case in point: Aca­dia’s pi­ma­vanserin.

The “break­through” drug was ap­proved af­ter it failed two stud­ies, then bare­ly passed muster in a piv­otal pro­gram. The pri­ma­ry re­view­er turned thumbs down on the drug. But it was ap­proved in any case af­ter a ma­jor­i­ty of FDA ex­perts on the ad­vi­so­ry com­mit­tee felt the ben­e­fits out­weighed the risks. That’s not much of a break­through, and they cite oth­er ex­am­ples of the same stripe.

So the three say it’s time to call the “break­through” pro­gram some­thing else that won’t be so eas­i­ly mis­in­ter­pret­ed.

But that’s not go­ing to hap­pen. 

Jacque­line Cor­ri­g­an-Cu­ray

In an ac­com­pa­ny­ing let­ter, FDA of­fi­cials led by Jacque­line Cor­ri­g­an-Cu­ray, di­rec­tor of the Of­fice of Med­ical Pol­i­cy with­in the Cen­ter for Drug Eval­u­a­tion and Re­search, con­clud­ed that while not every BTD lives up to its promise, the agency has not set the bar too low — and they warn against set­ting it too high.

The FDA needs the tools to iden­ti­fy and ac­cel­er­ate the ap­proval of drugs that can sub­stan­tial­ly im­prove the lives of pa­tients with se­ri­ous or life-threat­en­ing dis­eases who have in­ad­e­quate op­tions. Fast-track and break­through-ther­a­py des­ig­na­tions have done just that — while not with­out chal­lenges, cer­tain­ly with­out com­pro­mis­ing the thor­ough­ness of our re­view or the stan­dards of ev­i­dence to sup­port ap­proval. 

The dis­cus­sion goes on. But FDA com­mis­sion­er Scott Got­tlieb has made it clear that he wants all of the agency to em­brace the break­through pro­gram with the same fer­vor that the on­col­o­gy group has shown. And the pres­i­dent has en­dorsed faster ap­provals, not high­er stan­dards.

For now, BTD isn’t go­ing any­where.

John Hood [file photo]

UP­DATE: Cel­gene and the sci­en­tist who cham­pi­oned fe­dra­tinib's rise from Sanofi's R&D grave­yard win FDA OK

Six years after Sanofi gave it up for dead, the FDA has approved the myelofibrosis drug fedratinib, now owned by Celgene.

The drug will be sold as Inrebic, and will soon land in the portfolio at Bristol-Myers Squibb, which is finalizing a deal to acquire Celgene.

Endpoints News

Basic subscription required

Unlock this story instantly and join 57,400+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

UP­DAT­ED: AveX­is sci­en­tif­ic founder was axed — and No­var­tis names a new CSO in wake of an ethics scan­dal

Now at the center of a storm of controversy over its decision to keep its knowledge of manipulated data hidden from regulators during an FDA review, Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan has found a longtime veteran in the ranks to head the scientific work underway at AveXis, where the incident occurred. And the scientific founder has hit the exit.

Endpoints News

Basic subscription required

Unlock this story instantly and join 57,400+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Ab­b­Vie gets its FDA OK for JAK in­hibitor upadac­i­tinib, but don’t look for this one to hit ex­ecs’ lofty ex­pec­ta­tions

Another big drug approval came through on Friday afternoon as the FDA OK’d AbbVie’s upadacitinib — an oral JAK1 inhibitor that is hitting the rheumatoid arthritis market with a black box warning of serious malignancies, infections and thrombosis reflecting fears associated with the class.

It will be sold as Rinvoq — at a wholesale price of $59,000 a year — and will likely soon face competition from a drug that AbbVie once controlled, and spurned. Reuters reports that a 4-week supply of Humira, by comparison, is $5,174, adding up to about $67,000 a year.

The top 10 fran­chise drugs in bio­phar­ma his­to­ry will earn a to­tal of $1.4T (tril­lion) by 2024 — what does that tell us?

Just in case you were looking for more evidence of just how important Amgen’s patent win on Enbrel is for the company and its investors, EvaluatePharma has come up with a forward-looking consensus estimate on what the list of top 10 drugs will look like in 2024.

Endpoints News

Basic subscription required

Unlock this story instantly and join 57,400+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

UP­DAT­ED: Sci­en­tist-CEO ac­cused of im­prop­er­ly us­ing con­fi­den­tial in­fo from uni­corn Alec­tor

The executive team at Alector $ALEC has a bone to pick with scientific co-founder Asa Abeliovich. Their latest quarterly rundown has this brief note buried inside:

On June 18, 2019, we initiated a confidential arbitration proceeding against Dr. Asa Abeliovich, our former consulting co-founder, related to alleged breaches of his consulting agreement and the improper use of our confidential information that he learned during the course of rendering services to us as our consulting Chief Scientific Officer/Chief Innovation Officer. We are in the early stage of this arbitration proceeding and are unable to assess or provide any assurances regarding its possible outcome.

There’s no explicit word in the filing on what kind of confidential info was involved, but the proceeding got started 2 days ahead of Abeliovich’s IPO.

Abeliovich, formerly a tenured associate professor at Columbia, is a top scientist in the field of neurodegeneration, which is where Alector is targeted. More recently, he’s also helped start up Prevail Therapeutics as the CEO, which raised $125 million in an IPO. And there he’s planning on working on new gene therapies that target genetically defined subpopulations of Parkinson’s disease. Followup programs target Gaucher disease, frontotemporal dementia and synucleinopathies.

But this time Abeliovich is the CEO rather than a founding scientist. And some of their pipeline overlaps with Alector’s.

Abeliovich and Prevail, though, aren’t taking this one lying down.

Endpoints News

Basic subscription required

Unlock this story instantly and join 57,400+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Chi­na has be­come a CEO-lev­el pri­or­i­ty for multi­na­tion­al phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies: the trend and the im­pli­ca­tions

After a “hot” period of rapid growth between 2009 and 2012, and a relatively “cooler” period of slower growth from 2013 to 2015, China has once again become a top-of-mind priority for the CEOs of most large, multinational pharmaceutical companies.

At the International Pharma Forum, hosted in March in Beijing by the R&D Based Pharmaceutical Association Committee (RDPAC) and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), no fewer than seven CEOs of major multinational pharmaceutical firms participated, including GSK, Eli Lilly, LEO Pharma, Merck KGaA, Pfizer, Sanofi and UCB. A few days earlier, the CEOs of several other large multinationals attended the China Development Forum, an annual business forum hosted by the research arm of China’s State Council. It’s hard to imagine any other country, except the US, having such drawing power at CEO level.

As dis­as­ter struck, Ab­b­Vie’s Rick Gon­za­lez swooped in on Al­ler­gan with an of­fer Brent Saun­ders couldn’t say no to

Early March was a no good, awful, terrible time for Allergan CEO Brent Saunders. His big lead drug had imploded in a Phase III disaster and activists were after his hide — or at least his chairman’s title — as the stock price continued a steady droop that had eviscerated share value for investors.

But it was a perfect time for AbbVie CEO Rick Gonzalez to pick up the phone and ask Saunders if he’d like to consider a “strategic” deal.

Endpoints News

Basic subscription required

Unlock this story instantly and join 57,400+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

CEO Pascal Soriot via Getty Images

As­traZeneca's jug­ger­naut PARP play­er Lyn­parza scoops up an­oth­er dom­i­nant win in PhI­II as the FDA adds a 'break­through' for Calquence

AstraZeneca’s oncology R&D group under José Baselga keeps churning out hits.

Wednesday morning the pharma giant and their partners at Merck parted the curtains on a successful readout for their Phase III PAOLA-1 study, demonstrating statistically significant improvement in progression-free survival for women with ovarian cancer in a first-line maintenance setting who added their PARP Lynparza to Avastin. This is their second late-stage success in ovarian cancer, which will help stave off rivals like GSK.

Endpoints News

Basic subscription required

Unlock this story instantly and join 57,400+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

ICER blasts FDA, PTC and Sarep­ta for high prices on DMD drugs Em­flaza, Ex­ondys 51

ICER has some strong words for PTC, Sarepta and the FDA as the US drug price watchdog concludes that as currently priced, their respective new treatments for Duchenne muscular dystrophy are decidedly not cost-effective.

The final report — which cements the conclusions of a draft issued in May — incorporates the opinion of a panel of 17 experts ICER convened in a public meeting last month. It also based its analysis of Emflaza (deflazacort) and Exondys 51 (eteplirsen) on updated annual costs of $81,400 and over $1 million, respectively, after citing “incorrect” lower numbers in the initial calculations.