We Moved Forward on Many Fronts This Year

By: Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.

At the FDA, the agency that I’ve had the privilege to lead for the past five years, I am gratified to report that we have a lot to be proud of this year. In fact, this past year’s accomplishments on behalf of public health have been as substantial as any in FDA’s recent history.

Margaret Hamburg, M.D.We moved significantly forward, for example, in creating a system that will reduce foodborne illness, approving novel medical products in cutting-edge areas of science, and continuing to develop our new tobacco control program. We worked successfully with Congress and with regulated industry to reach agreement on a number of difficult issues, while continuing to use the law to the full extent possible to protect consumers and advance public health.

While there were many significant actions and events to recognize, below are some of the highlights of 2013.

In the foods area, there were many new actions this year that will have a long-standing impact on improving our food supply for consumers. Throughout the year we have been proposing new rules to reach the goals set forth by the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). These science-based standards will help ensure the safety of all foods produced for our market, whether they come from the U.S. or from other countries.

We also took important steps towards reducing artery-clogging trans fat in processed foods, and understanding the health impact of arsenic in rice. With a final rule that defines when baked goods, pastas and other foods can be considered free of gluten, people with celiac disease can have confidence in foods labeled “gluten free.” And we are studying whether adding caffeine to foods may have an effect on the health of young people and others.

There have likewise been many accomplishments in advancing the safety and effectiveness of medical products. We worked closely with Congress on the recently enacted Drug Quality and Security Act, which contains important provisions relating to the oversight of human drug compounding. The law also has provisions to help secure the drug supply chain so that we can better help protect consumers from the dangers of counterfeit, stolen, contaminated, or otherwise harmful drugs.

Using tools provided by last year’s landmark Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act (FDASIA), we are continuing to improve the speed and efficiency of medical product reviews, including those involving low-cost, high quality generic drugs and innovative new medical devices. The average number of days it takes for pre-market review of a new medical device has been reduced by about one-third since 2010. The percentage of pre-market approval applications that we approve has increased since then, after steadily decreasing each year since 2004.

We launched a powerful new tool to accelerate the development and review of “breakthrough therapies,” allowing FDA to expedite development of a drug or biologic (such as a vaccine) if preliminary clinical evidence indicates that it may offer a substantial improvement over available therapies for patients with serious or life-threatening diseases. This offers real opportunities to get promising drugs more quickly to patients who need them. In fact, using this new approach, FDA recently approved two advanced treatments for rare types of cancer and one for hepatitis C. We have also strengthened efforts to ensure product quality, increased protection of the drug supply chain, and reduced drug shortages.

We confronted the growing misuse of powerful opioid pain relievers by advising manufacturers on how to make these drugs harder to abuse with formulations that are more difficult to crush for inhalation or dissolve for injection. And we recommended that hydrocodone combination products be subject to stricter controls to help prevent abuse. 

We took an important step towards fighting the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria by implementing a voluntary plan to phase out the use of antibiotics to enhance the growth of food-producing animals, and to move any remaining therapeutic uses of these drugs under the oversight of a licensed veterinarian. So-called “production” use is considered a contributing factor in the development of bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotics used in human medical treatment.

In many areas of our work we are supporting the emerging field of personalized medicine. Advances in sequencing the human genome and greater understanding of the underlying mechanisms of disease, combined with increasingly powerful computers and other technologies, are making it possible to tailor medical treatments to the specific characteristics, needs, and preferences of individual patients.

Many cancer drugs today are increasingly used with companion diagnostic tests that can help determine whether a patient will respond to the drug based on the genetic characteristics of the patient’s tumor. In May, FDA approved two drugs and companion diagnostic testing for the treatment of certain melanoma patients with particular genetic mutations.

Advances in science and technology are also seen in the creation of new medical devices. For example, 3-D printing - the making of a three-dimensional solid object from a digital model – was once considered the wave of the future. But in February, FDA cleared for marketing a device created by 3-D printing – a plate used in a surgical repair of the skull that is built specifically for the individual patient.

While we have worked hard to get therapies to patients, we are at the same time using the tools available to us to remove unsafe and dangerous products from the market. In November, we used new enforcement tools provided by the food-safety law to act quickly in the face of a potential danger to public health presented by certain OxyElite Pro products. These supplements had been linked to dozens of cases of acute liver failure and hepatitis. After FDA took action, the manufacturer agreed to recall and destroy the supplements.

Finally, we made significant progress in implementing the letter and spirit of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. We have signed contracts with numerous state and local authorities to enforce the ban on the sale of tobacco to children and teens; conducted close to 240,000 inspections; and written more than 12,100 warning letters to retailers. And, in the first quarter of 2014 we will launch a public education campaign aimed at reducing the number of young people who use tobacco products.

All of us take great pride in the skill and vigor with which we overcame the year’s challenges and new demands. And so, as the year draws to a close, I extend my gratitude to the employees at the FDA who work tirelessly on behalf of the American public year in and year out. To all of our stakeholders, my heartfelt wishes for a joyous holiday season and a safe and healthy 2014.

Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., is the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration

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