FDA Advances Medical Product Innovation

By: Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.

On March 10, I had the pleasure of appearing with my colleague Dr. Francis Collins before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions to testify at a hearing on the subject of “Continuing America’s Leadership in Medical Innovation for Patients.” I thought the broader public health community would be interested in my oral testimony, and so I am sharing it here:

Margaret Hamburg, M.D.“Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee. I’m very pleased to be here today to discuss our shared goal of speeding innovative treatments to patients. FDA looks forward to working with you on this important effort.

As you have noted, this will be my last appearance before the Committee, as I am stepping down, but I want to thank you for your support over the years, and our constructive engagement with this committee to advance FDA’s public health mission.

I came to the Agency at a time of considerable uncertainty and change in the biomedical product industry; a time when dramatic advances in science and technology, some that my colleague Dr. Collins just outlined, demanded new models and approaches.

In turn, we took a very serious look at our role in advancing biomedical product innovation to ensure that we would be a gateway, not a barrier, to the delivery of better, safer and more effective treatments and cures.

In fact, this has been a high priority for me throughout my tenure and I’m very pleased, as Sen. Murray noted, last year, we approved the most new drugs in almost 20 years, and more orphan drugs than ever before. Forty-one percent of these new approvals were first-in-class products, resulting in a breathtaking array of truly innovative new therapies for patients.

Today, FDA approves drugs faster on average than all other advanced nations: 40 days faster than Japan; 70 days faster than Canada; and 174 days faster than Europe. And FDA has made substantial improvements in the efficiency of medical device reviews as well.

Moreover, we’ve accomplished this while remaining the gold standard around the world for safety and effectiveness.

Yet despite these successes, too many diseases still await treatments and cures.  Serious public health needs, such as treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, are not being met. And rising R&D expenditures are not matched by a proportionate discovery of new treatments.

In this context, I want to address concerns raised by some that FDA regulation is the principal obstacle to the development of innovative treatments, and suggestions that FDA’s authorities and procedures must be fundamentally restructured.

As a physician, I know that if you incorrectly diagnose a patient’s condition, the treatment that you’ll prescribe is unlikely to work. Unless we correctly diagnose why cures are still lacking for many diseases, we’re unlikely to find the solutions that will actually deliver those cures so let me give you three examples of misconceptions.

First is the incorrect but commonly repeated assertion that FDA’s approval of new drugs lags behind other countries. The reality is starkly different: over 75% of the new drugs approved by Japan, EU, Canada, Australia Switzerland and FDA from 2004 to 2013 were approved first by FDA, according to a recent report by the British-based Centre for Innovation in Regulatory Science. The result is that Americans are far more likely to get first access to a new medicine before patients abroad.

Second, FDA is said to be rigid and inflexible in its approach to requesting and using data for approval of a new drug. In fact, FDA’s clinical trial requirements have been steadily increasing in flexibility:

  • 45% of new drugs are approved based on a surrogate endpoint;
  • one-third are approved on the basis of a single clinical trial;
  • Last year, we used expedited approval processes for more drugs than ever before – about 66%.

And thanks in part to the new authority that you gave us in FDASIA, 74 drugs had received the new “breakthrough” designation.

My final example is the concern that investment in biotechnology has dropped precipitously in the United States, and that the FDA is to blame. But in the words of The National Venture Capital Association (NVCA), “Biotechnology investment dollars rose 29 percent in 2014 to $6.0 billion . . , placing it as the second largest investment sector for the year in terms of dollars invested.”  And Jonathan Leff, a leading biotechnology investor affiliated with NVCA, said that one of the two reasons for the increased investment in biotechnology is the improved regulatory climate in recent years at FDA.

I cite these examples to suggest not that the world of biomedical research and product development is all fine, but to urge that we start with the right diagnosis. We do not want solutions based on inaccurate diagnoses.

I caution against solutions that seek to lower the safety and effectiveness standards for approval of the medical products on which Americans rely. Remember that the great leaps forward in evidence-based medicine of the last 50 years have come in part because of the high standards for product approval that Congress put in place after a series of disasters involving unsafe and ineffective medical products. Those standards have also boosted the confidence that Americans place in medical products and that the world places in the American biomedical product industry.

Together, we can build on the progress that has been made in recent years, to further advance biomedical science and improve the lives of patients. And there are some areas from the FDA perspective that I believe we can all agree need to be improved.

First, patients are uniquely positioned to inform medical product development. Treatments can better meet their needs if we can capture science-based, disease-specific patient input to incorporate in the development and review process.

Second, more attention needs to be given to the development of “biomarkers” and surrogate endpoints. These can help scientists identify and target successful medical treatments and shorten drug development times as Dr. Collins was noting in his remarks.

FDA has accepted hundreds of biomarkers and surrogates, such as blood pressure changes, blood sugar reduction, and tumor shrinkage. Yet biomarkers are still lacking for many diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. The biggest obstacle is that scientists do not sufficiently understand the causes of Alzheimer’s and other diseases to identify drug targets or identify which patients will benefit from certain drugs. To solve this problem we must support the establishment of strong public-private partnerships, bringing the best minds together to develop the science that we need.

Third, evidence from clinical experience (called “real world evidence” or “big data” by some) provides a vital tool to monitor medical products in use in the marketplace. FDA’s Sentinel Initiative, with more than 170 million lives, is one of the largest uses of this type of information in healthcare and proving vital for monitoring safety and emerging safety concerns. The science of using evidence from clinical experience to establish product effectiveness is still in its infancy. Real progress demands that we develop the methodologies needed to harness its promise.

And fourth, FDA and industry agree that the Agency must be able to attract and retain talented scientists to review cutting-edge products. We look forward to working with you to improve our ability to hire and retain these experts.

So let me close by underscoring that speeding innovation while maintaining standards for safety and efficacy serves patients well, supports the needs of our health care system, and has enabled the medical product industry in this country to thrive. And so I thank you for your support for our efforts at FDA and the work you are going to be doing going forward to advance that work and the work of all our colleagues in the biomedical research community so we can deliver on the promise of science for patients.”

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

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