Advancing the development of new “targeted drug therapies” by enhancing the science of biomarkers

By: Issam Zineh, PharmD, MPH, FCP, FCCP

A key area of new drug development lies in the field of targeted therapies, sometimes called “personalized medicines,” which are drugs tailored to the genetic makeup of individual patients. These drugs are called targeted therapy because health care professionals can use clinical test results from a patient to select a specific drug that has a higher likelihood of being effective for that particular person. FDA is working with a wide range of scientists and scientific organizations to help advance the fundamental biomedical science necessary to support this growing field.

Issem ZinehThe successful development of targeted therapies requires biomarkers – measureable indicators in the body such as proteins or DNA changes – to identify patients at risk of worsening disease and those with a high likelihood of treatment benefit or experiencing treatment failure. Having biomarkers that can help health care professionals diagnose disease, identify the stage of a disease, or predict patient response to treatment also has the potential to make drug development more efficient. For example, biomarkers can be used to identify patients to enroll in clinical trials, which can make trials smaller or shorter because the drug’s effect is measured only in people who are likely to respond. There are now several drugs on the market that were developed with a biomarker-based diagnostic test that can be used in the clinic to identify patients. Examples include Xalkori (crizotinib) and Tarceva (erlotinib), used to treat forms of lung cancer, and Zelboraf (vemurafenib), used to treat certain types of melanoma (skin cancer).

Biomarkers can be helpful in the development of new therapies, whether or not they are targeted therapies. For example, identifying reliable biomarkers that can substitute for clinical “endpoints” can speed up drug development. This is because showing that a drug has a meaningful effect on a biomarker is generally easier and takes less time than showing that the drug has positive effect on the way a patient feels, functions, or survives.  The availability of established biomarkers may also attract greater interest and investment in a drug’s development and can help minimize financial losses with earlier identification of poor performing drugs.

The ability to identify useful biomarkers depends on how well scientists understand the disease for which they are seeking treatment. In some disease areas, such as cancer and infectious diseases, we have made great progress in understanding disease processes and the ways to affect these processes with drug therapy. In less well-developed areas, FDA is working to promote biomarker-based strategies in drug development. For example, we currently have a process for “qualifying” biomarkers for regulatory purposes.

Recently, FDA teamed with the Brookings Institution’s Engelberg Center for Health Care Reform to host a public workshop to help advance biomarker science for therapeutic product development. Discussions helped to identify and to propose solutions for scientific challenges for biomarker applications in early and late phase clinical trials for new drugs, as well as best practices for successful biomarker-based programs. Some opportunities highlighted in the discussion include:

  • Clear standards about the evidence needed to support use of biomarkers;
  • Infrastructure and policies that promote development of tests used to identify patients for trials and in the clinic, particularly tests designed to evaluate many biomarkers at one time;
  • New models and networks for clinical trials that will accelerate both biomarker and new product development; and,
  • Methods to assess treatment effects in small populations identified by sequencing technologies.

Public input from this workshop will be used to help FDA in its decision making and communications about biomarkers. As part of its mandate under the Prescription Drug User Fee Act Reauthorization of 2012, FDA is committed to advancing the development and use of biomarkers in medical product development. The public workshop was a significant step in helping us fulfill this obligation. Finding ways to advance the identification and use of biomarkers in drug discovery and development also has been a focus of the House Energy & Commerce Committee’s recent 21st Century Cures initiative. We look forward to continued efforts to advance biomarkers, which will help bring important new therapies to patients in need.

Issam Zineh, PharmD, MPH, FCP, FCCP, is Director, Office of Clinical Pharmacology, Office of Translational Sciences, in FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research

Developing new tools to support regulatory use of “Next Gen Sequencing” data

By: Carolyn A. Wilson, Ph.D.

When you’re thirsty, you don’t want to take a drink from a fire hose. And when scientists are looking for data they don’t want to be knocked over with a flood of information that overwhelms their ability to analyze and make sense of it.

Carolyn WilsonThat’s especially true of data generated by some types of both human and non-human genome research called Next Generation Sequencing (NGS). This technology produces sets of data that are so large and complex that they overwhelm the ability of most computer systems to store, search, and analyze it, or transfer it to other computer systems.

The human genome comprises about 3 billion building blocks called nucleic acids; much medical research involves analyzing this huge storehouse of data by a process called sequencing—determining the order in which the nucleic acids occur, either in the entire genome or a specific part of it. The goal is often to find changes in the sequence that might be mutations that cause specific disease. Such information could be the basis of diagnostic tests, new treatments, or ways to track the quality of certain products, such as vaccines made from viruses.

NGS is a complicated technique, but basically it involves cutting the genome into millions of small pieces so you can use sophisticated chemical tricks and technologies to ignore the “junk” you don’t need, and then make up to hundreds of copies of each of the pieces you want to study. This enables additional techniques to identify changes in the sequence of nucleic acids that might be mutations. NSG enables scientists to fast-track this process by analyzing millions of pieces of the genome at the same time. For comparison, the famous human genome sequencing and analysis program that took 13 years to complete and cost $3 billion could now be completed in days for a few thousand dollars.

Man with HIVE Computer

The Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER) supported the development of High-Performance Integrated Virtual Environment (HIVE) technology, a private, cloud-based environment that comprises both a storage library of data and a powerful computing capacity being used to support Next Generation Sequencing of genomes.

In order to prepare FDA to review and understand the interpretation and significance of data in regulatory submissions that include NGS, the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER) supported the development of a powerful, data-hungry computer technology called High-Performance Integrated Virtual Environment (HIVE), which can consume, digest, analyze, manage, and share all this data. HIVE is a private cloud-based environment that comprises both a storage library of data and a powerful computing capacity. One specific algorithm (set of instructions for handling data) of HIVE that enables CBER scientists to manage the NGS fire hose is called HIVE-hexagon aligner. CBER scientists have used HIVE-hexagon in a variety of ways; for example, it helped scientists in the Office of Vaccines Research and Review study the genetic stability of influenza A viruses used to make vaccines. The scientists showed that this powerful tool might be very useful for determining if influenza viruses being grown for use in vaccines were accumulating mutations that could either reduce their effectiveness in preventing infections, or even worse, cause infections.

There’s another exciting potential to HIVE-hexagon research: the more scientists can learn about variations in genes that alter the way they work—or make them stop working–the more they can help doctors modify patient care to reflect those very personal differences. These differences can affect health, disease, and how individuals respond to treatments, such as chemotherapy and influenza vaccines. Such knowledge will contribute to advances in personalized medicine.

Team members at work in FDA's HIVE server room.

CBER scientists showed that HIVE might help scientists determine if influenza viruses being grown for use in vaccines were accumulating mutations that could either reduce their effectiveness in preventing infections or cause infections. Genome studies supported by HIVE will also contribute to advances in personalized medicine.

Because CBER’s HIVE installation has been so successful we are now collaborating with FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH) to provide a second installation with greater capacity and computer power that takes advantage of the high-performance computing capacity there. When ready and approved by FDA for use, we will use this powerful, CBER-managed, inter-center resource to handle regulatory submissions.

HIVE-hexagon and its innovative NGS algorithms are just one major step CBER has taken recently as it continues its pioneering work in regulatory research to ensure that products for consumers are safe and effective. I’ll tell you about other exciting breakthroughs in my next update on CBER research.

Carolyn A. Wilson, Ph.D., is Associate Director for Research at FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.

For more HIVE photos go to Flickr

FDA Innovation Brings New Therapies to Lung Cancer Patients

By: Richard Pazdur, M.D. and Gideon Blumenthal, M.D.

Last week, we approved a new drug for patients with a certain type of late stage, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

Richard Pazdur, M.D.

Richard Pazdur, M.D.

It’s one of four targeted therapies for lung cancer that have been approved since 2011—therapies that are the result of a new and forward-thinking approach to understanding the disease and its causes.

Within the last decade, the high quality of the data in the applications submitted to the agency and our collective understanding of the genetic and molecular underpinnings of lung cancer have enabled us to move from classifying the disease by what can be seen under a microscope, to looking at the patient’s molecular profile and classifying and treating the cancer by specific subtype. Scientists can now identify “driver oncogenes,” which cause a normal cell to become cancerous and promote the growth of a patient’s tumor. They can develop targeted therapies aimed at shutting down these aberrant genes and pathways, an example of an approach called personalized medicine.

Last week’s approval of Zykadia (certinib) provides a new treatment option for patients who comprise a relatively small subset of lung cancer and previously had few treatment options. While about 85 percent of lung cancers are NSCLC, making it the most common type, only about 5 percent of patients’ tumors are anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) positive. Zykadia blocks this ALK protein that promotes the development of cancerous cells. In a clinical trial of 163 patients with metastatic ALK-positive NSCLC who had progressed on or were intolerant to a similar drug, results showed that tumors shrank in about half of the participants, and this effect lasted an average of seven months.

Gideon Blumenthal, M.D.

Gideon Blumenthal, M.D.

Moreover, the approval process exemplifies the important role of FDA and the strength of the collaborative process between FDA, industry, health advocacy organizations and other stakeholders. And it illustrates the dedication and enthusiasm of FDA reviewers who carefully, but expeditiously, analyzed complex study results to allow for earlier approval to support patient access to this new drug.

FDA granted breakthrough designation to this drug, thereby streamlining the development and review process with an “all hands on deck” approach. In fact, due to the enhanced understanding of ALK in lung cancer and the frequent interactions between the FDA and the commercial sponsor, it took less than four years—versus the roughly ten years it used to take—from the initial study of a drug to FDA approval.

We hope to further extend the collaborative effort in the future by participating in the use of the master protocol process. In a master protocol, multiple drugs and biomarkers can be tested in in a single, ongoing clinical trial. Under this approach, based on individual patient profiles, researchers can randomly assign patients either to one of several targeted treatments or to a control regimen of standard chemotherapy. We believe this will enhance the efficiency of clinical trials and help deliver safe and effective therapies to a patient population where few such therapies exist. Stay tuned: we hope to say more about this process in a future FDA Voice blog.

Of course, the progress we are making can’t come fast enough. There are far too many cancer mutations with few or no therapies developed thus far to treat them. But we and our colleagues throughout the medical research world are continuing to look for new and creative approaches to treat the disease. We’re well on our way.

Richard Pazdur, M.D. is Director of the Office of Hematology and Oncology Products at FDA.

Gideon Blumenthal, M.D. is the Team Leader of Thoracic Oncology in the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research at FDA. 

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

Gene Sequencing Devices Are ‘Next Generation’

By: Jeffrey Shuren, M.D.

Just for a moment, imagine a scenario in which you have an illness that has eluded diagnosis. The usual suspects have been ruled out and no one knows exactly what’s making you sick. 

Using medical devices that FDA has now cleared for marketing, a laboratory could sequence your genome to look for any abnormalities in your genes that could be responsible for your illness. This information would be relayed to your doctor and used to determine the course of treatment.

This is called “next generation sequencing” because it’s another step towards a future in personalized medical care that few of us could have envisioned even a decade ago. 

First, let’s define some terms. A genome is the complete set of genetic information in your body. This information is held in sequences of DNA, and gene sequencing from your whole blood allows laboratories to look for genetic variations that could hold the key to the causes of disease and the right treatment. 

FDA is clearing the marketing of four gene-sequencing devices. Two of the devices make up the first test system authorized for marketing that allows laboratories to sequence a patient’s genome for any purpose. The software compares the patient’s sequence to a normal human genome sequence used for reference and identifies the differences. 

The other two devices are used to detect changes in the CFTR gene, which can result in cystic fibrosis, a disease inherited through a faulty CFTR gene from both parents. More than 10 million Americans are carriers of cystic fibrosis (they have only one faulty copy), and one of these tests could be used to identify men and women with the faulty CFTR gene. The second test looks for other, perhaps unexpected, mutations in the CFTR gene that could be having an impact on the patient’s health. 

Regulatory science – the science of developing new tools, standards and approaches to assess the safety, effectiveness, and quality of FDA-regulated products – played a key role in FDA’s readiness to assess these revolutionary devices. Knowing the potential of next generation sequencing to advance personalized medicine, FDA researched next generation sequencers to understand how they work and their likely limitations. By the time Illumina (the San Diego-based biotechnology company that developed the next generation sequencing devices authorized for marketing) walked in the door, FDA had the expertise and tools needed to timely review the submissions for the next generation sequencers. 

The regulatory science development efforts that contributed to the timely marketing authorization of these devices will continue to help advance this important technology. We are also collaborating with the National Institute of Standards and Technology – a federal agency that works to advance measurement science, standards and technology – and other agencies to develop human genome materials that can serve as reference materials so that other labs and researchers can assess the performance of their gene sequencers quickly, effectively, and at a lower cost.

We are working on many fronts to achieve the promise of personalized medicine, so that patients can get medical treatments that are right for them. Clearing the marketing of these four devices moves us closer to that goal.

For further perspective, read a new article in the New England Journal of Medicine by FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. and National Institutes of Health Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.

Jeffrey Shuren, M.D., is Director of FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health

Personalized Medicine: The Future is Now

By Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.

Margaret Hamburg, M.D.The difference between science and science fiction is a line that seems ever harder to distinguish, thanks in part to a host of astonishing advances in medical science that are helping to create a new age of promise and possibility for patients.

Today cancer drugs are increasingly twinned with a diagnostic device that can determine whether a patient will respond to the drug based on their tumor’s genetic characteristics; medical imaging can be used to identify the best implantable device to treat a specific patient with clogged coronary arteries; and progress in regenerative medicine and stem cell therapy using a patient’s own cells could lead to the replacement or regeneration of their missing or damaged tissues. Given these trends, the future of medicine is rapidly approaching the promising level of care and cure once imagined by Hollywood in futuristic dramas like Star Trek.

But these examples are not science fiction. They are very real achievements that demonstrate the era of “personalized medicine” where advances in the science of drug development, the study of genes and their functions, the availability of increasingly powerful computers and other technologies, combined with our greater understanding of the complexity of disease, makes it possible to tailor treatments to the needs of an individual patient. We now know that patients with similar symptoms may have different diseases with different causes. Individual patients who may appear to have the same disease may respond differently (or not at all) to treatments of that disease.

FDA has been playing a critical role in the growth of this new era for a number of years. Even before I became FDA Commissioner the agency was creating the organizational infrastructure and putting in place the regulatory processes and policies needed to meet the challenges of regulating these complex products and coordinating their review and oversight. It has been my pleasure to serve at FDA during this next exciting period and to help ensure that the agency continues to prioritize this evolution by anticipating, responding to, and encouraging scientific advancements.

I am very pleased to be able to present a new report by FDA as part of our ongoing efforts in this field. Paving the Way for Personalized Medicine: FDA’s Role in a New Era of Medical Product Development describes many of the exciting developments and looming advances in personalized medicine, lays out the historical progress in this field, and examines FDA’s regulatory role: from ensuring the availability of safe and effective diagnostic devices, to addressing the challenges of aligning a drug with a diagnostic device, to post-market surveillance.

Outside collaboration and information sharing is essential for this field to flourish. On Tuesday, the American Association for Cancer Research and AdvaMedDX held a fruitful daylong conversation on personalized medicine to treat cancer. I was one of the speakers, participating in a conversation with Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health. Our discussion focused in part on current status of drug and diagnostic co-development and the challenges and potential of whole genome sequencing, where data can be collected on a patient’s entire genetic makeup at a reasonable cost in a reasonable amount of time.

FDA is committed to fostering these cooperative efforts, as it will require the full force of government, private industry, academia and other concerned stakeholders to maximize our efforts and fully realize the promise of personalized medicine. Our new report outlines that commitment, and helps chart the way forward so that more people can live long and prosper.

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

FDA Goes 3-D

By Steven K. Pollack, Ph.D., and James Coburn, M.S.

Dr. Steven Pollack (left) holds a 3D-printed RoboHand, a prosthetic for children with amnionic banding syndrome, an illness that can prevent fingers from developing in children. Research engineer James Coburn (right) uses the 3-D printer (background) in his work in the FDA lab.

Dr. Steven Pollack (left) holds a 3D-printed RoboHand, a prosthetic for children with amnionic banding syndrome, an illness that can prevent fingers from developing in children. Research engineer James Coburn (right) uses the 3-D printer (background) in his work in the FDA lab.

This Snap-Together RoboHand Prosthetic, sized for a small child, was created at FDA with a 3-D printer.

The Snap-Together RoboHand prosthetic was invented by South African carpenter Richard van As and made available for free on the Internet. Before printing, the hand can be individually sized, and all connecting pieces are also printed. The device can now be printed for less than $100.

A hospital in Michigan implants a 3-D printed medical device into a 3-month-old boy with a rare bronchial condition and saves a young life.

A man has 75 percent of his skull replaced with a 3-D printed implant.

3-D printing—the process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model—is making headlines these days, and the technology, once considered the wave of the future, is rapidly becoming part of the present.

It’s spurring innovation in manufacturing, dramatically reducing the time required to design new products and allowing designs to be built that were not possible before.

Here at FDA, we’re using it to expand our research efforts and expand our capabilities to review innovative medical products. In fact, 3-D printing is fast becoming a focus in our practice of regulatory science—that is, the science of developing new tools, standards and approaches to assess the safety, effectiveness, quality and performance of FDA-regulated products.

With 3-D printing, the conversion from a virtual computer model to a physical object can occur almost in real time. The printer translates virtual models into digital cross-sections for use as a blueprint for printing, laying down successive layers in different shapes.

FDA Research Engineer James Coburn operates a RapMan kit 3D printer.

James Coburn adjusts the tension on the feed mechanism for the ABS plastic filament that is the raw material for the RapMan kit 3D printer.

Two laboratories in the FDA’s Office of Science and Engineering Laboratories (OSEL) are investigating how the technology may affect the manufacturing of medical devices in the future.

At our Functional Performance and Device Use Laboratory we’ve developed and adapted computer-modeling methods to help us determine the effect of design changes on the safety and performance of devices when used in different patient populations. The 3-D technology enables us to tweak the design in ways large and small, and to see precisely how those tweaks will change both fit and functionality. In an era of increasingly personalized medicine, which involves the development of treatments that are tailored to an individual patient or a group that shares certain characteristics, including anatomical features, it helps us to fine-tune our evaluation of patient-fitted products.

At our Laboratory for Solid Mechanics we’re investigating how different printing techniques and processes affect the strength and durability of the materials used in medical devices. What we’re discovering will be valuable to our reviews of devices down the road; it will help us to develop standards and set parameters for scale, materials, and other critical aspects that contribute to product safety and innovation.

In August 2012, President Obama launched the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII), a national effort bringing together industry, universities and the federal government to provide innovation infrastructure to support new technologies and products created with additive manufacturing, the formal term for 3-D printing.

FDA has a long history of researching and regulating innovative technological practices. Regulators regularly review some of the newest technologies coming onto the market and, through our research, FDA has first-hand knowledge of these advanced techniques so we can evaluate advanced technology at an early stage—a crucial step in facilitating innovation and protecting the public health. We will continue to facilitate device innovation and keep on the cutting edge of technology and regulatory science to help ensure that the products we regulate are safe and effective.

To see more photos of how FDA is using 3-D printing technology, visit our Flickr photostream.

Steven K. Pollack, Ph.D. is Director of FDA’s Office of Science and Engineering Laboratories (OSEL) at FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. James Coburn, M.S. is a Research Engineer in OSEL.

How Science and Strategic Collaboration Led to a New, “Personalized” Cystic Fibrosis Treatment for Some Patients

By: Janet Woodcock, M.D.

Targeting a drug for small subgroups of patients is a new way to find effective therapies. This is often called personalized medicine, and it’s one of today’s most promising areas of new drug development.

Last year, FDA approved two important targeted medicines: Xalkori (crizotinib), a lung cancer drug that targets tumors with the abnormal ALK gene, and Zelboraf (vemurafenib), a drug to treat malignant melanomas that have a certain gene mutation. Both drugs were approved with companion diagnostic tests to identify if patients have a susceptible tumor.

Today, the FDA approved Kalydeco (ivacaftor) to treat a specific subgroup of patients with cystic fibrosis (CF). Cystic fibrosis is an inherited genetic disease that affects a person’s lungs and other organs and may lead to an early death.

Janet Woodcock, M.D.What makes the availability of Kalydeco even more unique is that the drug’s developer, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, teamed up with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation to develop and study the drug.

This success story began in 1989 when a team of researchers, including Francis Collins, now the director of the National Institutes of Health, discovered the gene that is involved in cystic fibrosis. This gene, known as CFTR, plays an important role in producing a protein that regulates the flow of salt and water out of the cells that line the cavities of the body. There are a number of different mutations that can cause the CFTR gene to produce a defective protein. This results in lung congestion and digestive problems.

Kalydeco targets a gene mutation that only occurs in about 4 percent of CF patients. Before using this medicine, doctors will test CF patients to determine whether they have this mutation (many CF patients have already been tested to understand what caused their CF).  If the patient is a match, the drug may provide substantial benefits including improved lung function and weight gain.

Patients have played an important role in how new drugs are developed and studied since the HIV/AIDS activists in the 1980s and 1990s. But what the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation pioneered is a new form of patient power that some have called venture philanthropy. The Foundation helped with a portion of the drug’s development costs, provided researchers with useful insights about the CF patient population and helped in the recruitment of study participants – contributions that were critical to quickly bringing the innovative new therapy to patients.

The unique and mutually beneficial partnership that led to the approval of this new therapy for some CF patients serves as a great model for future drug development and patient group collaboration moving forward.

Here’s to innovation and continued cooperation and progress for patients!

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