Rare Diseases in Children Pose Unique Challenges

By: Gayatri R. Rao, M.D., J.D.

Rare diseases – those that affect fewer than 200,000 people in the United States but collectively affect 30 million Americans – are often chronic, progressive, debilitating, and life-threatening. Because most are genetic in origin, they disproportionately affect children. The agency is strongly committed to advancing safe and effective therapies for these young patients.

Gayatri R. Rao, M.D., J.D., is Director of FDA's Office of Orphan Products DevelopmentIn recognition of International Rare Disease Day on February 28, 2014, we are focusing on pediatric rare diseases.

While developing products for any rare disease poses challenges, in part because of the small patient populations, developing products for children raises unique considerations.  Historically, pediatric care has involved the use of off-label therapies that are unstudied or under-studied in children. For example, pediatric drug dosing often involved adjusting adult doses based on a child’s decreased weight, without considering potential age-based differences in drug metabolism and toxicities. Similarly, many medical devices used in children have been adapted – in homes, clinics, and operating rooms – to solve problems quickly, with little time to consider the long term consequences of a device’s effect on a growing child’s physiology and development.

And while incentives currently exist to promote the development of products for pediatric rare diseases, development in this area continues to lag due to the compounded challenges associated with studying both a rare and pediatric population.

In recognition of these challenges, Congress directed FDA to issue a report and strategic plan focused on accelerating and encouraging the development of therapies for pediatric rare diseases. In response, FDA convened a series of public meetings from January 6 – 8, 2014 to discuss the many challenges in developing treatments for rare diseases, specifically for children with rare diseases, and how to overcome those challenges.  These meetings generated a great deal of interest in the rare disease and pediatric communities. Hundreds of people attended either in person or via webcast and represented a wide swath of these overlapping communities, including patients, academicians, researchers, clinicians, industry, and governmental agencies, many of whom were noted experts in their respective fields.

There were frank, robust and productive conversations on a wide range of topics. A few common themes emerged, especially the important role that patient advocacy groups, including parents of pediatric patients, play in furthering drug development, such as participating in the development of robust patient registries and natural history studies, and providing their perspectives on the risks and benefits of specific treatments. Another common theme was the need for strong collaborations between patients, researchers, industry, and government.

My office, the Office of Orphan Products Development (OOPD), is now coordinating a cross-agency effort with Center for Drugs Evaluation and Research (CDER), the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER), the Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH), and the Office of Pediatric Therapeutics (OPT) to develop a report and strategic plan to encourage and accelerate the development of therapies for pediatric rare diseases. The goal of this report is to incorporate the valuable insights gained from these public meetings to inform and tailor ongoing and future agency initiatives to more effectively advance the development of such therapies.

OOPD, in collaboration with CDER, is also launching a web-based educational tool for rare disease patients, advocacy groups, researchers and industry on various FDA-related topics. Current topics include the essentials of interacting with FDA and expanded access to products under development. The goal is to continue to add to this educational resource over time. For the new educational tool, as well as additional information, visit the OOPD Educational Resources web page. In addition, FDA and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will jointly celebrate Rare Disease Day with a one-day program at NIH Masur Auditorium highlighting various rare diseases programs, research activities, and initiatives. For more information about this event that is free and open to the public, and available via webcast, visit the OOPD web page.

The needs of rare disease patients and the pediatric population are complex and pose challenging issues. We are committed to working with the pediatric rare disease community to face those challenges head-on and to accelerate the development safe and effective therapies for these diseases.

Gayatri R. Rao, M.D., J.D., is Director of FDA’s Office of Orphan Products Development

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