A Year of Significant Progress in Public Health

By: Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.

Margaret Hamburg, M.D.A new year offers both an opportunity to look forward and an opportunity to reflect on the achievements of the previous year. And, in 2014, FDA’s accomplishments were substantial, touching on many of the agency’s broad responsibilities to protect and promote the public health.

Whether our achievements involved medical product safety and innovation, food safety and nutrition, tobacco control, or other areas of our important work, all were accomplished thanks in large part to our ability to respond to evolving needs and opportunities including the embrace of new approvals, technologies and cutting-edge science.

Consider these highlights:

Drug Approvals: This past calendar year, FDA approved 51 novel drugs and biologics (41 by CDER and 10 by CBER), the most in almost 20 years. Among CDER’s 2014 approvals are treatments for cancer, hepatitis C and type-2 diabetes, as well as the most new drugs for “orphan” diseases since Congress enacted the Orphan Drug Act over 30 years ago. Seventeen of these new approvals are “first in class” therapies, which represent new approaches in the treatment of disease. In addition, CBER approved many important biological products in 2014, including a number of groundbreaking vaccines for meningitis B, the flu, and certain types of Human Papillomavirus, the latter of which is expected to prevent approximately 90 percent of the cervical, vulvar, vaginal and anal cancers caused by HPV.

These developments are a testament not just to our expanding understanding of human biology, the biology of disease and the molecular mechanisms that drive the disease process, but also to FDA’s innovative approaches to help expedite development and review of medical products that target unmet medical needs, while adhering to the established standards for safety and efficacy. These include enhanced guidance to shape the research and development agenda, early input on clinical study needs and design, expedited review programs, targeted regulatory advice and other tools and incentives that spur investment and innovation in new medical products to address unmet medical needs.

Opioids: This past year FDA took several actions to address the abuse of opioid drugs. First, we approved abuse deterrent labeling for three opioid products that are designed to deter prescription drug abuse. These drugs used different technologies to combat the abuse problem in different ways, such as by making the product resistant to crushing or dissolving or using “aversive technology” to discourage users from taking more than the approved dosage of the drug. To help encourage the development of more drugs in abuse-deterrent forms, we are also working to provide additional advice to manufacturers. Although abuse-deterrent opioid drugs are not a silver bullet to prevent opioid abuse, we believe that our work in this area will give physicians effective new treatment options with less risk of abuse.

FDA also worked to improve the treatment of patients who overdose on opioids. We approved a new dosage form of naloxone, with an autoinjector to enable a caregiver to administer the drug in the emergency treatment of opioid overdose (as it rapidly reverses the effects of an overdose). While we continue to support development in this area, this approval offers a new valuable tool to help prevent the tragedy of opioid drug overdose.

Antibiotic Resistance: We made important strides in confronting the growing resistance of some bacteria to antimicrobial drugs. Our efforts, which are a critical part of the recently unveiled National Strategy on Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria, offer a multi-pronged approach that recognizes that to effectively address this challenge means simultaneously addressing the many different causes for increasing antibiotic resistance. One important response has been efforts to expand the pipeline of new medical products, including therapeutics to treat and cure infection, diagnostics to aid in the identification of the cause of infection and of resistant infections, and vaccines to help prevent infection with bacteria in the first place.

These efforts are already having an impact. In 2014, FDA approved four novel systemic antibiotics. In contrast, only five new antibiotics had been approved in the previous ten year period.

In addition to working on the human medical product side, we also developed and, over the next two years will be implementing, an important complementary strategy to eliminate the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion in food-producing animals. This strategy, once fully implemented, also will bring the remaining uses of such drugs to treat, control or prevent disease in these animals under the oversight of veterinarians. All 26 animal health companies who produce those drugs have committed to participate, and 31 products already have been withdrawn from the market.

Pharmacy Compounding: We continued to respond effectively to the 2012 outbreak of fungal meningitis that was linked to contaminated compounded drugs. This included conducting more than 90 inspections of compounding facilities across the nation in the past year. As a result, numerous firms that engaged in poor sterile practices stopped making sterile drugs, and many firms recalled drugs that have been made under substandard conditions. Where appropriate, we have worked with the Department of Justice to pursue enforcement action against some of these facilities.

We also have continued to implement the compounding provisions of the Drug Quality and Security Act (DQSA), and to develop and implement policies to address compounding by state-licensed pharmacies and the new category of registered outsourcing facilities.

Food Safety: Over the past year, the Agency has made great strides in implementing the landmark FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Through our proposed rules for preventive controls requirements for both human and animal food, standards for produce safety, foreign supplier verification programs, third party auditor accreditation, focused mitigation strategies to prevent intentional adulteration of food aimed at causing large-scale public health harm, and requirements for sanitary transportation practices to ensure the safe transport of food, we are working to ensure the safety of American consumers related to the foods they eat.

Nutrition: Good health depends not just on food safety, but also on what we choose to eat. FDA plays an important role in promoting good nutrition and healthy food choices by helping consumers understand the importance and benefits of good nutrition – and of being able to make informed choices about what we eat.

New rules in 2014 to finalize requiring calorie information on restaurant menus and vending machines give our citizens information they need to make healthy food choices and hopefully help reduce the epidemic of obesity in the United States. We also proposed changes to the familiar “Nutrition Facts” label on packaged foods which, when finalized, will give our citizens updated nutrition information, reflecting the most current nutrition science, to help them make healthy choices when purchasing packaged foods.

Tobacco Control: There are few areas that have as profound an impact on public health as tobacco products, which is why, five years ago, Congress gave FDA the responsibility to oversee the manufacture, marketing, distribution, and sale of tobacco products.

Over the past year, we worked with state authorities to conduct more than 124,000 inspections of retailers to enforce the ban on the sale of tobacco products to children. We unveiled the first of its kind national public education campaign—The Real Cost—to reduce youth smoking. And we took the first steps towards extending the agency’s tobacco product authority over additional products such as electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes), cigars, pipe tobacco, nicotine gels, waterpipe (hookah) tobacco, and dissolvables not already subject to such authority through our proposed “Deeming Rule.” In addition, as part of ongoing work on product review decisions, eleven tobacco products that were allowed to enter the market during a provisional period established by the Tobacco Control Act were found “not substantially equivalent” to a predicate tobacco product. As a result of this finding, these products can no longer be sold or distributed in interstate commerce or imported into the United States.

Ebola: The tragic Ebola epidemic in West Africa demonstrates that we do not have the luxury of closing our eyes – or our borders – to the public health problems that exist in the rest of the world. I’m proud that FDA has played an important role in the response to this disease, working closely with colleagues in our government as well as the scientific community, industry and a range of other organizations and nations. We have helped facilitate the development, testing, manufacture, and availability of investigational products for use in diagnosing, treating and preventing Ebola, and worked with sponsors and health care providers to facilitate access to these products as clinical circumstances warrant. In August 2014, FDA designated the drug Z-Mapp as an orphan drug for Ebola, with the hope that this would incentivize further development and study.

And I’m very pleased to report that FDA is represented on the ground in West Africa by dedicated officers of the Commissioned Corps of the Public Health Service who continue to staff and operate the Monrovia Medical Unit in Liberia that was built to treat the health workers who became ill responding to the outbreak. Like everything FDA does, both at home and abroad, our actions on Ebola represent our agency’s continuing commitment to health and safety, and the use of science to advance these important goals.

I am extremely proud of our accomplishments in 2014, and I am confident that FDA will have a successful 2015, as we continue our work to protect and promote the public health.

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

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