Launching a New Natural History Grants Program: Building a Solid Foundation for Rare Disease Treatments

By: Katherine Needleman, Ph.D. and Gumei Liu, M.D., Ph.D.

Today, on Rare Disease Day 2016, FDA’s Office of Special Medical Programs/Office of Orphan Products Development (OOPD) is proud to announce the launch of a new grants program to fund natural history studies with the hope of bringing new and important diagnostics and therapeutics to patients with rare diseases.

Kathy Needleman

Katherine Needleman, Ph.D., is the Director of the Orphan Products Grants Program of FDA’s Office of Orphan Products Development

A rare disease, by definition, affects fewer than 200,000 individuals in the United States. Its impact, however, is far from rare. Altogether, about 7,000 known rare diseases affect about 30 million Americans. Yet the vast majority of rare diseases do not have adequate diagnostic tools or treatments.

Developing such diagnostics or treatments — whether it’s a drug, biologic, or medical device — has been compared by many to building a house. Both require a solid, sound foundation. For any rare disease treatment development program, that foundation consists of having a thorough understanding of the natural history of a disease.

How do you define the natural history of a disease? Think about it as the course a disease takes – from the time of its onset, progressing through its pre-symptomatic phase and clinical stages, to the end of the disease. Insight into a disease’s natural history can help lead to better, more well-designed trials that can accelerate the development of life-saving diagnostics and therapeutics.

Gumei Liu

Gumei Liu, M.D., Ph.D. is a reviewer and grant project officer in FDA’s Office of Orphan Products Development

A lack of understanding of the natural history is often a major obstacle to developing life-saving products for patients with rare diseases. Without it, it becomes very difficult to decide what to study, know what to look for within a study, and capture the data necessary for approval of a treatment or even a cure.

OOPD’s new Natural History Grant Program is intended to provide much needed support and complement ongoing efforts to help change the trajectory of rare disease product development. The funded studies should help characterize the natural history of a rare disease or condition, identify genotypic and phenotypic subpopulations, and develop and/or validate clinical outcome measures, biomarkers, and companion diagnostics.

There are several ways to conduct natural history studies. They can look back in time (retrospective), look ahead (prospective), or be a survey study (collection of data through questionnaires). Each has its pros and cons and the method will to a great extent depend on what we know about a specific rare disease and the currently available treatment options.

Patient advocacy groups can and do play a critical role in collecting natural history data as is highlighted in FDA’s video discussion (watch video below) on natural history studies featuring perspectives from patient advocates. Often what prevents organizations, like patient advocacy groups, from conducting natural history studies is funding. And that’s where the grants program can make a difference.

The Orphan Products Natural History Grants Program is open to funding all types of natural history studies that are appropriate for the rare disease being studied and can aid in development of diagnostics and treatments. There are two funding levels and durations that will be offered:

  • A maximum of $400,000 in total costs per year for up to five years for prospective natural history studies involving clinical examination of affected individuals; and
  • A maximum of $150,000 in total costs per year for up to two years for retrospective natural history studies or survey studies.

The Orphan Products Natural History Grants Program is built upon OOPD’s Orphan Products Grants program that was established by the Orphan Drug Act more than 30 years ago and which has typically funded clinical trials. OOPD has successfully utilized its budget to help bring over 50 products to market with that clinical trial grant program.

We hope that this new Orphan Products Natural History Grants Program will help build the important foundation necessary to accelerate the development of life-saving diagnostic and treatments for the many rare disease patients who need them.

Katherine Needleman, Ph.D., is the Director of the Orphan Products Grants Program of FDA’s Office of Orphan Products Development

Gumei Liu, M.D., Ph.D. is a reviewer and grant project officer in FDA’s Office of Orphan Products Development

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