FDA Is Committed to Determining Sex Differences in How Drugs Work

By: RADM (Ret.) Sandra L. Kweder, M.D., F.A.C.P. 

There’s a lot happening these days with regard to the personalization of medicine and how drugs work differently in people, particularly in men versus women. FDA has a long history in understanding and analyzing these effects. 

Sandra KwederWe’ve issued guidance to the pharmaceutical industry explaining in detail our expectations about analyzing clinical data for sex-related differences as well as differences according to other demographic groupings. Those assessments, depending on the drug, may start with routine animal studies, in case a difference is evident by sex, but become most important when drugs begin to be tested in humans to see if data signal potential differences that require follow-up. 

Both women and men participate in drug studies. (As early as 2001, a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office showed women were included in all drug trials at a statistically significant level, and women were the majority of participants in trials supporting half of the applications analyzed.) We also consider separately the effects of drugs on men and women to determine whether sex differences exist and whether we need more information to assess variations, if they exist at all. 

We take action if variations are suspected or found. For instance, last year FDA updated the dosing recommendation for sleep medications, such as those containing zolpidem (Ambien and other brands), lowering the recommended starting dose for women to 5 mg (from 10 mg). We did this because women were found to be especially susceptible to zolpidem’s side effects, largely because it is cleared from the body more slowly in women than in men. Moreover, new information became available to FDA last year about how sensitive to blood levels one important side effect of zolpidem is – that of driving impairment. New methods of studying the relationship between drug levels and certain driving tests were key to this understanding. We learned that even when individuals with certain blood levels of zolpidem don’t report feeling drowsy, their driving skills can still be affected. This is true of men and women, but because of women’s slower clearance of the drug from their system they are more likely to be at risk the morning after taking zolpidem. 

This zolpidem case highlights how biologic differences can sometimes play out in individuals’ responses to medications. Some differences in how drugs affect men versus women can relate to variations in metabolism and rates of absorption, and sometimes even because a particular illness has different characteristics in men and women. So we expect our reviewers and pharmaceutical companies to routinely look for sex differences in their new drug applications. Despite looking, it is rare for us to find that drugs differ based on sex alone.

Many drug labels already comment on dose considerations or side effect profiles related to age, health problems, or sex. Some drugs are only approved for one sex. For example, Lotronex (alosetron), a drug used to treat irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), is only approved for women because clinical trial data showed the drug is not effective in men. And Giazo (balsalazide) is used to to treat mildly to moderately active ulcerative colitis in males age 18 and older because it was shown to be ineffective in female patients. 

FDA also monitors all human drugs on the market via our surveillance programs. When findings suggest safety issues we think are important, we work with companies to put that information in labeling (if it is not already present), and sometimes we require companies to do additional studies. If you, as a patient, have any concerns about your specific medication or dose, you should talk to your health care professional. A drug can act differently in people not just because of their sex, but also due to factors such as weight and other medications taken. 

Our staff, including those in our longstanding Office of Women’s Health, are dedicated to protecting and advancing women’s health through policy, science, and outreach. We’ll continue to advocate for the inclusion of women in clinical trials and for analyses of how their bodies process medications. Our recent zolpidem decision is an example of how science evolves – and shows the importance of using new information to review previous decisions when needed. This is an exciting area of science. 

Sandra L. Kweder, M.D., is the Deputy Director of the Office of New Drugs at FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research 

Quality: A Recurring Theme During My Visit to India

By: Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.

As one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Taj Mahal is not only one of India’s most sacred symbols, but one of the finest, most carefully designed architectural structures in the world. As I studied the details of the marble and embedded precious stones of the mausoleum during a recent visit to the city of Agra, I could not help but reflect on the care, craftsmanship and quality of the work that took just over two decades to complete. It was evident as I walked along with hundreds of other visitors in socked feet that those responsible for building the Taj and those that are preserving the centuries old structure are committed to extraordinary quality.

Commissioner Hamburg with A Didar Singh

FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., and A Didar Singh of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industries.

This vision of quality and care remained with me when I met with executives from pharmaceutical and food exporting companies operating in India. The roundtable meetings, organized by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industries, were an opportunity for me to learn about two of the largest business sectors in India and to hear from business leaders about the challenges they are facing as a result of globalization.

One of the challenges cited by the pharmaceutical leaders is approval times for abbreviated new drug applications – the applications filed for generic drugs. I am happy to report that the FDA is working quickly to fulfil one of our commitments under the Generic Drug User Fee Act (GDUFA) – reducing the backlog of generic drug applications that were pending when the new user fee program went into effect on Oct. 2, 2012.  As of the end of January 2014, our Center for Drug Evaluation and Research had taken a formal action on 45 percent of backlogged generic drug applications. In December 2013 alone, the center completed 174 actions, including 30 full approvals for generic drugs.

GDUFA also requires that we step up our number of foreign inspections and gives us the funding to do so. Companies participating in both the pharmaceutical and drug roundtables said they were challenged by our heightened inspectional activities. I told them that every company supplying the U.S. market has the responsibility of ensuring that their products are safe, effective and of high-quality.

In my talks with regulators and companies here in India I have placed a great deal of emphasis on why quality matters. As I explained, quality is linked to product safety and without a direct focus on quality, the potential for patient harm increases significantly.

In recent years the FDA has identified significant lapses in quality by some companies operating in the U.S. and around the world. As a result, American consumers have had to endure greater risk of illnesses, recalls, and warnings about the products many of them rely on each day. This is unacceptable. Consumers should be confident that the products they are using are safe and high quality and when companies sacrifice quality, putting consumers at risk, they must be held accountable.

Regulatory agencies around the world share my vision for ensuring that consumers, patients and healthcare providers in all of our nations have access to high quality products. I am pleased that, as a global leader in the pharmaceutical and foods sectors, India will continue partnering with us to ensure that the companies exporting products to the U.S. are adhering to established quality standards.

On the home front, we at the FDA will also continue to increase our focus on quality. One way we are doing this is through the creation of a new Office of Pharmaceutical Quality that will create one voice for drug quality at the FDA and improve our oversight of quality throughout the lifecycle of a pharmaceutical product.

All companies must understand that quality is the basis for the public’s trust and confidence in their products and maintaining high quality standards is part of the cost of doing business.

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

 

Why FDA Supports a Flexible Approach to Drug Development

By: Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.

We all know that just as every person is different, so too is every disease and every drug.

Margaret Hamburg, M.D.And so we weren’t surprised by the results of a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study found that FDA used a range of clinical trial evidence when approving 188 novel therapeutic drugs for 208 indications (uses) between 2005 and 2012. These results are entirely consistent with our regulatory mandate. We believe varying approaches to clinical studies to support drug approval is good news, not bad.

Data to support the approvals studied were based on a median of two pivotal trials per indication. A pivotal trial presents the most important data used by FDA to decide whether to approve a drug.

But when the authors looked more closely, they found that more than a third of these drugs were approved on the basis of a single pivotal clinical trial, while still other trials involved only small groups of patients for shorter durations. Of the approvals studied, the new drug was compared with existing drugs on the market only about 40 percent of the time.

The authors concluded that, based on these results, the ways in which FDA arrived at those approvals “vary widely in their thoroughness.” Or, in the words of one study author, “Not all FDA approvals are created equally.” Although I don’t think it was actually the author’s intent, a number of commentators framed this as criticism. But I would be more troubled if FDA used a rigid, “one size fits all” approach.

People with serious or life-threatening illnesses, particularly those who lack good alternatives, have told us repeatedly that they are willing to make some trade-offs in order to gain access.

And, of course, “thoroughness,” such as whether a clinical trial is large enough, is in the eyes of the beholder. There is no reason to expect drugs to be tested on similar numbers of patients, regardless of the disease.

Variation in approach to clinical studies demonstrates FDA’s innovative and flexible approach to drug development and approvals. Such an approach was specifically adopted by Congress in the Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act in 1997 and, most recently, in the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act in 2012.

The FDA of today works with sponsors of new drugs to design a development and review pathway for each drug that best reflects the disease and patients it is intended to treat, the drug itself, and other treatment options. Some of the factors that enter into our calculus include whether the drug treats a rare or serious disease or addresses an unmet need and any previous knowledge we might have about the drug.

Thus, for example, FDA approved Imbruvica (ibrutinib), a treatment for mantle cell lymphoma, last year based on an “open-label, single-arm trial,” which means that every patient received the treatment and both patients and researchers knew they were receiving it. The results were compared to how well the 111 participating patients had responded to previous treatment for their disease.

And Elelyso (taliglucerase alfa) – for Gaucher disease – was an orphan drug approved in 2012 based on two trials with 56 patients.

In contrast, some trials require large numbers of patients to demonstrate a drug’s effects. This is often the case in studies in patients with a chronic condition such as cardiovascular disease, where larger populations are studied to capture treatment effects.

No matter what clinical trial design is chosen, the Agency always applies the same statutory approval standards of safety and efficacy to all drugs seeking to be marketed in the United States.

Increased flexibility does not mean abandoning standards, and it certainly does not mean abandoning science. Just the opposite. We need to employ the best science in ways that will increase efficiency, productivity and our shared ability to find creative solutions to the challenges that confront us.

At the end of the day, that is just smart regulation – ensuring that patients can more rapidly have access to the best that science has to offer.

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

FDA and Health Canada: Working Together for an Efficient Pathway for Drug Applications

By:  Robert Yetter, PhD 

At FDA, we work closely with national regulatory agencies around the world on issues relating to the safety, efficacy and availability of medical products. An exciting example of such collaborative efforts is the Common Electronic Submissions Gateway (or CESG), an outcome of the US-Canada Regulatory Cooperation Council (RCC). Through a cooperative research and development agreement, FDA worked with our counterparts in Health Canada, to share technology that will make it more efficient for industry to submit applications to both the U.S. and Canada for the approval of pharmaceutical and biological products. A common infrastructure would enable industry to submit to both countries using the same electronic format for technical documents. 

Robert YetterThe RCC Initiative was announced in February 2011 by President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Its goals are to promote economic growth, job creation and benefits to consumers and businesses through increased regulatory transparency and coordination. The electronic submissions gateway is one such project designed to meet those goals. 

So just what is this gateway? It’s an electronic “post office” that uses secure Internet connections to receive electronic versions of medical product applications and related documents from industry sponsors seeking regulatory approval. The technology was developed under contract, and implementation at FDA was led by the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.  FDA’s Electronic Submissions Gateway (ESG) has been in operation since 2006. It has now been modified to accommodate submissions from both Canada and the U.S. using the same interface and technology, and subsequently sending those submission transmissions to one or both regulatory authorities. 

The collaboration on the Common Electronic Submissions Gateway has the potential to yield long-term positive outcomes for both FDA and Health Canada. The collaboration continues the work between the two regulatory partners to streamline both agencies’ submission requirements while maintaining consistency in regulatory requirements. It could also lead to cost reductions for regulated industry, which would not have to follow separate technical requirements for submission to the two countries. 

We’re very proud of our work with Health Canada to make this technology accessible in a relatively short amount of time, going from concept to delivery in 26 months. This is yet another example of the steps FDA is taking as part of our Global Initiative, which envisions enhanced collaboration with our regulatory partners. 

Robert Yetter, PhD, is the Associate Director for Review Management in FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research

Another Strong Year for Novel New Drug Approvals

By: John K. Jenkins, M.D.

Last year marked another strong year for FDA approvals of novel new drugs, known as new molecular entities (NMEs).  In 2013, FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) approved 27 NMEs last year – about the same as the 26 average NME approvals per year since the beginning of this decade.

John JenkinsMore important than the quantity of novel new drugs approved in 2013 is their quality – and the important new roles many of these drugs can serve in advancing medical care and the health of patients. We now have new safe and effective treatments for a wide range of serious medical conditions, such as late-stage breast cancer, chronic hepatitis C, metastatic melanoma, mantle cell lymphoma, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, homozygous familial hypercholesterolemia, pulmonary arterial hypertension, and many more. Some of these medications offer new hope to patients who previously had few or no treatment options.

Here are a few highlights of these approvals:

  • One-third of the NMEs approved in 2013 were identified by FDA as “first-in-class,” for example, drugs that use a new and unique mechanism of action for treating a medical condition;
  • One-third were also approved to treat rare or “orphan” diseases that affect 200,000 or fewer Americans who often have few or no drug treatment options;
  • Almost half of the 27 NMEs approved last year (13 of 27), were designated in one or more categories of Fast Track, Breakthrough, Priority Review, or Accelerated Approval. Each of these designations helps speed the development and/or approval process and is designed to help bring important medications to the market as quickly as possible;
  • Although FDA’s regulatory processes differ widely from those of foreign regulatory authorities, almost three-quarters (74%) of the NMEs approved by FDA in 2013 were approved first in the United States before any other country.

All of us at FDA are pleased and proud to be part of a team that helped bring these new drugs to market as safely and efficiently as possible. As always, while striving for efficiency in our review and approval of applications for new drugs, compromises were not made in our standards. To be approved, each NME had to demonstrate that it was safe and effective before being approved.

My colleagues and I look forward to another productive year serving the American public!

For more details about 2013’s approvals, please visit The Novel New Drugs Summary at: http://www.fda.gov/downloads/Drugs/DevelopmentApprovalProcess/DrugInnovation/UCM381803.pdf

John K. Jenkins, M.D., is Director, Office of New Drugs, at FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research

Gregory Reaman Helps Make the World a Better Place for Children

By: Richard Pazdur, M.D.

I am privileged to work every day with many physicians and other health care professionals dedicated to advancing public health for all Americans. One of them is Dr. Gregory Reaman, who has been awarded the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s prestigious Return of the Child Award. Greg has devoted his career to finding better ways to treat and improve the outcomes for children with cancer.

Richard Pazdur, M.D.This award, presented in December in New Orleans, is given each year to a person who has made a major and lasting scientific or humanitarian contribution to the better understanding, management or treatment of pediatric hematological malignancies. (Hematological malignancies are the types of cancer that affect the blood, bone marrow and lymph nodes.)

Greg was honored for his exceptional leadership and accomplishments in the field of pediatric hematology and oncology during his lengthy career as a clinician and academic researcher and, since 2011, as a member of my team here at FDA. His primary work has focused on clinical trials for children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and the early phases of developing experimental drugs for children. Greg’s leadership in these areas has led to significant improvements in the care of children with ALL, as well as the facilitation of new drug development for children with cancer.

Dr. Gregory Reaman accepts award

Dr. Gregory Reaman (left) accepts The Return of the Child Award Presented by LLS CEO John Walter

Greg is a previous recipient of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Tree of Life Award, which honors those who have played a major role in improving the quality of life of patients and their families. Through these and many other efforts, his extensive research has helped to advance how pediatric blood cancers are treated today.

At FDA, where he is associate director of oncology sciences, Greg is using new mechanisms created by recent laws to facilitate public discussion and promote drug research and development for children with cancer.

Greg is also executive director emeritus and senior attending physician at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Throughout his distinguished career, Greg has held other leadership positions at Children’s and at the National Childhood Cancer Foundation. He is also a tenured professor of pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. 

I know of no greater endeavor in life than to dedicate one’s work to making this world a better place for children, and I know of no individual more deserving of an award for such efforts than Greg. I know I speak for my entire staff and all of us at FDA when I congratulate Greg on his achievements.

Richard Pazdur, M.D., is director of the Office of Hematology and Oncology Products in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research

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

New Law Enhances Safety of Compounded Drugs and Protection of the Drug Supply Chain

By: Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.

Since last year’s tragic meningitis outbreak and subsequent events involving compounded drugs, Congress has been hard at work to pass new legislation to provide FDA with the appropriate authorities for regulating compounded drugs to help make these products safe for the American public.

Margaret Hamburg, M.D.Over a much longer period of time, efforts have been made in Congress to enhance the security of the drug supply chain and protect consumers from exposure to counterfeit, stolen, contaminated or otherwise harmful drugs.

I am pleased that the Drug Quality and Security Act can help FDA protect public health in both of these critical areas.

One part of the new law offers a step forward in FDA’s oversight of certain entities that prepare compounded drugs. The new law will enable these compounders to register with the FDA to become “outsourcing facilities,” making them subject to certain other requirements including Federal quality standards, known as current good manufacturing practice. These facilities will also be subject to inspection by FDA on a risk-based schedule. If compounders register with FDA as outsourcers, hospitals and other health care providers will be able to provide their patients with drugs that were compounded in facilities that are subject to FDA oversight and federal requirements for current good manufacturing practice, among others. To that end, we will be encouraging healthcare providers and health networks to consider purchasing compounded products from facilities that are registered with FDA and subject to risk based inspections.

Drugs produced by compounders that are not registered as outsourcing facilities must meet certain other conditions described in the law, or they will be regulated by FDA as conventional drug manufacturers.

Generally, the state boards of pharmacy will continue to have primary responsibility for the day-to-day oversight of state licensed pharmacies, including traditional pharmacy compounding. And FDA will continue to cooperate with state authorities to address pharmacy compounding activities that may be in violation of the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act.

Another part of the new law enables certain prescription drugs to be traced as they move through the U.S. drug supply chain. The goal is to protect the public from exposure to counterfeit, stolen, or otherwise harmful drugs. This will require manufacturers, repackagers, wholesale drug distributors, and dispensers (other than most licensed health care practitioners) to provide product and transaction information with each sale and notify the FDA and other stakeholders of illegitimate products, which will result in improved detection and removal of potentially dangerous drugs from the supply chain.

Starting four years after enactment of the law, manufacturers, followed by repackagers, will be required to affix a unique product identifier to each drug package that contains the drug’s national drug code (NDC), serial number, lot number, and expiration date. Starting six years after enactment of the law, wholesale drug distributors, followed by dispensers, may only trade products that  are encoded with product identifiers and will be able to verify the product identifier if they determine that they have  suspect product. Ten years after enactment, supply chain stakeholders and FDA will benefit from an electronic, interoperable system which will facilitate the efficient exchange of product and transaction information for prescription drugs at the individual package level. The system, when fully implemented, will enable verification of the legitimacy of the drug product identifier down to the package level, enhanced detection and notification of illegitimate product, and improved efficiency of recalls.

The Drug Quality and Security Act is a significant step toward having new and stronger drug quality and safety laws. While the law does not provide FDA with all the additional authorities sought, these provisions are a sign of progress.

We are committed and prepared to implement the new law that will help us to further protect public health.

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

Ensuring Safe Food and Medical Products: A Partnership with the Mekong Region

By: Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit the Mekong Region of Southeast Asia, which includes the countries of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. I was struck not only by its beauty, dynamism, and diversity, but also by the commitment of health officials there to building strong health systems and cooperating across borders in the face of potential health threats. I learned that by working together with each other and the United States they were able to build an effective rapid response to outbreaks of an emerging pathogen such as the H5N1 influenza virus.

Margaret Hamburg, M.D.I was reminded of my visit this week during my participation at a forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies entitled “U.S. Health Partnerships in the Mekong Region.” The day’s discussions highlighted the growing strategic importance of the region to the United States and the long-standing and ongoing partnerships between U.S. agencies and regional partners in health and development, including the central focus of the FDA, to ensure the safety of food and medical products in the United States.

Though Americans may not often think about it, the U.S. is increasingly and inextricably linked to the Mekong Region through global supply chains. For instance, about 15% of the seafood we consume in the United States comes from Mekong region countries, arriving on our shores and in our stores after a long and circuitous journey. Consider tuna, which may be caught in the South Pacific, transported to New Zealand for pre-canning, and shipped to Southeast Asia for canning before it finally makes its way to the East Coast of the United States for distribution in this country. 

Why does this matter to FDA? There is a greater likelihood that food will be exposed to pathogens, contaminants or chemical hazards during a journey of this complexity. That’s why we work closely with our regional counterparts in these countries through such organizations as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), sharing with them our own regulatory requirements, our knowledge of good manufacturing practices and our laboratory and inspection techniques. Through such information sharing we believe we can prevent tainted or otherwise unsafe foods from reaching our borders. 

But the risk of potentially unsafe food from this area is not our only concern. A significant threat to human safety today involves substandard, falsified and counterfeit medical products that are part of the global supply chain. These products may contain toxic ingredients, or too much or too little of a drug’s active ingredient, and as a result patients could be poisoned or unwittingly receive inadequate treatment for their disease or even no treatment at all. In addition, if too many patients receive only partial treatment, it might foster the development of drug-resistant disease strains. And there’s this too: a high prevalence of substandard and falsified medicines ultimately will erode public trust in the health care system.

Unfortunately, statistics suggest that substandard and falsified products is a problem in the Mekong Region. A recent comprehensive review found that in Southeast Asia, 35 percent of anti-malarial drugs were substandard and 36 percent were counterfeit. And many of the countries in this region have porous borders and face challenges with regulatory oversight and enforcement practices that cannot adequately protect the supply chain. 

FDA is working with the World Health Organization to build a global monitoring system to monitor substandard, falsified and counterfeit medicines, and collaborating with countries in the region to develop and test the system. In addition to cooperating with our regulatory counterparts across the globe on issues of detection, investigation and enforcement, FDA scientists have developed the Counterfeit Detection Device, or CD-3, which can quickly screen for counterfeit products – not just drugs – at any location, including remote communities and border sites. With our international partners, we are currently planning to expand the use of this tool in several field settings, including in the Mekong region.

Building cooperation for this kind of enforcement is essential not just to ensuring the safety of our food and medical products, but as a means of advancing our national security objectives. That’s why meetings like the one I attended this week are so important. They support opportunities to work with our colleagues in the Mekong region on ways to share information and promote stronger, innovative regulatory systems that are critical to the long-term success of our global public health efforts.

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

Working to improve the communication of important drug safety information about generic drugs

By: Janet Woodcock, M.D. 

FDA is taking a step today that is intended to improve the communication of important drug safety information about generic drugs to both prescribers and patients. 

All drug manufacturers are required to keep close tabs on their drugs once they go to market, reviewing all reports of adverse events involving their drug and reporting these findings to FDA. 

But currently, only brand name manufacturers are able to independently update and promptly distribute revised drug safety information, also called labeling, and they can distribute that information before FDA has reviewed or approved the change. These updates, which are submitted in changes being effected supplements, ensure that this important safety information gets to the public as quickly as possible. 

Right now generic companies, who are responsible for over 80% of the prescription drugs dispensed to patients, aren’t able to revise their drug safety information as quickly as the brand name. They must provide supporting information to FDA, which then determines whether safety information for both the brand and generic drugs should be revised before updates can occur. 

Today, FDA is issuing a proposed rule that would allow generic drug manufacturers to independently update and promptly distribute revised product labeling — just like brand name manufacturers – before FDA reviews or approves the change. 

Empowering generic drug companies to update their own drug safety information is intended to provide them the incentive to more actively participate with FDA in ensuring the timeliness, accuracy, and completeness of this information. 

The brand manufacturer would be expected to consider the information provided by the generic drug manufacturer as part of its review and evaluation of adverse drug experience information for its drug. 

And to make sure that the drug safety information updates from both generic and brand name companies are readily available to health care professionals and the public, FDA plans to post these updates on its website. 

Faster safety updates and easier access to this information should be a win–win for all involved. 

Janet Woodcock, M.D., is director of FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research