FDA Science: Working at the Speed of Emerging Technologies

By Luciana Borio, M.D.

Let’s face it, we’ve all gotten used to nearly instant access to almost anything.

Today, with a tap of an app, we order a car ride, a book, or pizza for dinner. Need to navigate past traffic in downtown city streets? No problem. There’s an app for that, too.

Some may wonder: Why hasn’t rapid medical product development partaken of this need for speed that has reshaped other sectors of our economy? Well, in many ways, it has.

Innovation is happening extraordinarily fast in the biomedical sciences and at FDA. As FDA’s Acting Chief Scientist responsible for leading and coordinating FDA’s cross-cutting scientific and public health efforts, I see close up that years of scientific research, collaboration, and investment are paying off.

FDA Acting Chief Scientist Lu Borio

FDA Acting Chief Scientist Luciana Borio

When I testified at a congressional hearing recently, my colleague, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, gave a tangible example of what I mean. He said it took his team about three months to begin clinical testing of a Zika vaccine candidate developed from scratch. In 2003, it took the same team 18 months to develop a candidate vaccine to address the SARS outbreak and begin clinical testing of that product.

And in just over two decades, a disease like multiple sclerosis has gone from being untreatable to one for which clinicians are nearly “flummoxed by the options,” according to a headline I saw recently.

There is a reason for this success. In the last several years, scientists have identified and begun using “safety-risk biomarkers.” Rather than those for efficacy, these biomarkers identify which patients are at highest risk for certain adverse events. They have opened up an array of therapeutic options for patients who might do just fine with some treatments that may not otherwise have been developed due to our previous inability to properly assess their risk.

None of these successes would be possible without our FDA product reviewers working at breakneck pace to guide these innovative development programs.

It’s not always fully understood that FDA scientists play an essential role in advancing many biomedical innovations. That’s why we invite the public to participate in a two-day Science Forum at FDA every other year to showcase the agency’s robust scientific research and the important work done by our 11,000 scientists.

Just as industry focuses on product development research and academia focuses on the scientific foundation, FDA research concentrates on creating test methods and developing knowledge of processes to ensure that our products are safe and effective or, with tobacco, at least with reduced harm.

I like to think that this year’s Science Forum was better than ever. Over two days, hundreds of participants were treated to 230 scientific posters and some 50 presentations by FDA scientists and others, organized under eight broad categories:

  1. Identification and Evaluation of New Biomarkers;
  2. FDA Response to Urgent Public Health Needs;
  3. Microbiome and Human Health;
  4. Advanced Manufacturing and 3D Printing;
  5. Omics Technologies at FDA;
  6. Patient and Consumer Engagement and Communication;
  7. Computational Modeling and Simulation at FDA; and,
  8. Current Progress in Nanotechnology Research at FDA.

Four poster sessions during the two days augmented the presentations that featured the authors of studies describing the methodology, challenges, and results of their research one-on-one with those at the forum. Among the meaty topics discussed were:

  • The emerging technology of additive manufacturing and medical devices, produced by 3D printing. Bioengineers at FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health have positioned themselves at the forefront of knowledge and research about this cutting-edge manufacturing process, by looking into patient matching, imaging, and phantoms. With our proactive posture, FDA is paving the way for safe and effective innovation that will usher in life-saving advanced treatments for patients.
  • The growing use in medical products of nanomaterials – equal to about one-billionth of a meter – so small that they can’t be seen with a regular microscope. Silver nanoparticles are now used in wound dressing for their antimicrobial properties. And liposomal nanoparticles are used as drug carriers to reduce toxicity and increase circulation time in the blood. Characterizing these complex nanomaterials is challenging. FDA scientists highlighted their analytical methods for characterizing nanomaterials in over-the-counter FDA-regulated products. This will help us with assessing risk, developing industry guidelines for characterizing nanomaterials, postmarket surveillance, and determining shelf life of nanomaterials in consumer products.
  • In the area of food safety, FDA has contributed to enhancing antimicrobial resistance monitoring in a collaborative effort with USDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And, genomics studies conducted by FDA scientists have demonstrated that we can use the emerging technology whole genome sequencing as an effective tool for predicting antimicrobial resistance of certain foodborne pathogens.

Not all of our essential research deals with cutting-edge technology. Scientists from FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products (CTP) shared their work on water pipe, or hookah, smoking. Water pipes, a centuries-old method of smoking, are becoming an increasingly common method of tobacco smoking in young adults. A rare and serious lung disease – water pipe-induced acute eosinophilic pneumonia – has been reported among these smokers. One of the forum’s posters described how CTP scientists identified the disease and made physicians aware of it.

And, as a sign of the times, mobile communications also were part of the poster sessions. Healthy Citizen @FDA will be a holistic, citizen-centric mobile platform for FDA to collaborate and communicate with citizens to improve public health outcomes and to receive timely FDA alerts.

Of course, events like these are equally valuable for what happens before and after the formal presentations. From the snippets of conversation I picked up in the hallways, FDA and outside scientists had plenty of opportunity to interact, share ideas, and even discuss potential collaborations.

Those who attended the 2017 Science Forum gained a deeper understanding of the cutting-edge science we do at FDA to protect and promote the public health. And those who missed the Forum have the option of watching the recorded presentations on FDA’s website. We look forward to future opportunities to share more of the exciting advances we’re making with our partners in the scientific community.

Luciana Borio, M.D., is FDA’s Acting Chief Scientist

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