Two Recent Scientific Advances Underscore an Encouraging Future for Precision Medicine at FDA

By: Janet Woodcock, M.D.

FDA helps bring precision medicine – in the form of targeted therapies — to people living with diseases that have specific genetic features.

Two recent FDA drug approvals point to an encouraging future for “precision medicine” — an approach for disease treatment that tailors medical therapies, including medications, to the needs of individual patients. These approvals involve diseases resulting from particular genetic characteristics identified by laboratory testing.

  • In mid-May, FDA announced that we expanded the approval of Kalydeco (ivacaftor), enabling a larger number of patients with cystic fibrosis (CF) to benefit from the drug. The expanded approval includes CF patients with one of 23 additional rare mutations. Kalydeco is now indicated for 33 CF mutations, up from 10 previously.
  • Also in May, we announced expanded approval for Keytruda (pembrolizumab) to treat patients whose cancers have a specific genetic feature. This is the first time FDA has approved a cancer treatment based on a genetic feature, rather than the location in the body where the cancer originated.

Janet WoodcockFDA has approved many more advances in precision medicines, also called “targeted therapies.” In the past 3 years alone, our Center for Drug Evaluation and Research has approved more than 25 new drugs that benefit patients with specific genetic characteristics. And we have approved many more new uses — also based on specific genetic characteristics — for drugs already on the market. Some of these drug approvals are for patients with rare genetic disorders. Others are new targeted therapies to treat cancer, hepatitis C, or HIV. Medication dosing for specific diseases may also be tailored to the individual.

Precision medicine holds great promise, but to continue developing targeted therapies, we will need scientific advances in the use and development of “biomarkers.” Biomarkers are indicators in the body that can be measured—like blood pressure, blood sugar, and tumor size. Tests to identify genetic variants are another form of biomarker. Biomarkers can enable health care professionals and researchers to identify patients at risk of disease, determine the stage of a disease, and predict the likelihood that a patient will benefit from a drug. They also play a role in drug development. A particular biomarker, for example, can be used to identify appropriate candidates for a clinical trial, such as those patients likely to respond to treatment. This can make it easier and faster to recruit patients and may result in a shorter time for drug approval. In a similar way, biomarkers can sometimes identify positive treatment effects before traditional clinical endpoints would. For instance, biomarkers might show a tumor shrinking before improvement in a patient’s condition is detected. So, using biomarkers in clinical trials can speed up the time it takes for an investigative drug to reach a patient.

The ability to identify useful biomarkers depends on how well scientists understand the disease they are seeking to treat. In some areas, such as cancer and infectious diseases, we have made real progress in understanding how these diseases develop and how to treat them with drug therapy. FDA continues to encourage drug developers to use strategies based on biomarkers. One way we do that is by ensuring that a given biomarker is really able to single out those patients who are likely to respond to a specific drug. Another way is using biomarkers to identify people whose disease is progressing rapidly. Beyond working on biomarkers for individual products, FDA also works with stakeholders and scientific consortia in qualifying biomarkers that can be used in the development of many drugs. Once qualified, these biomarkers may be used in the specified manner by any drug sponsor.

New provisions under the recently passed 21st Century Cures Act provide direction and opportunity for FDA to strengthen the science of biomarkers and to advance precision medicine. We believe it is important to make drugs such as Kalydeco and Keytruda available to as many patients as can benefit from them. FDA is actively pursuing more advances in targeted therapies.

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

Clarifying What We Mean When We Talk About Biomarkers: An NIH/FDA Joint Leadership Council Success

By: Melissa A. Robb, B.S.N., M.S. (RegSci), and Robert M. Califf, M.D.

What if there was a more uniform way to convey key technical terms to help advance scientific progress? Thanks to the Biomarkers, Endpoints, and other Tools (BEST) Resource, we’re one step closer to that goal.

Melissa Robb

Melissa A. Robb, B.S.N., M.S. (RegSci), FDA’s Associate Director for Regulatory Affairs, Office of Medical Policy, Center for Drug Evaluation and Research

Now available on the National Center for Biotechnology Information’s Bookshelf, the BEST Resource was developed through a collaboration of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It includes a glossary of terms and definitions that will ensure the consistency and clarity needed to drive progress in biomedical research and clinical care.

Why is this textbook so important? In the spring of 2015, the FDA-NIH Joint Leadership Council identified a problem: Confusion about the definitions and inconsistent use of key terms–including biomarkers, surrogates, and clinical outcome assessments. This can deter progress in developing medical products and thereby potentially compromise efficiency in achieving public health benefits.

Accordingly, the council identified a high priority: harmonizing terms—or making sure that everyone is “speaking the same language”–that describe and categorize types of endpoints.

Members from multiple FDA Centers and NIH institutes formed a working group to focus on creating a glossary. This was the first step to a publicly available and open access textbook that could be continuously updated and expanded.

Robert M. Califf, MD, MACC; Commissioner, U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Robert M. Califf, M.D., Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration

As the basis of their work, the group considered existing terminology and definitions. Those include FDA guidance documents and other literature, especially a seminal FDA-sponsored Institute of Medicine study.

The use of biomarkers has recently expanded widely to include fields such as mechanistic biomedical research, clinical trials, drug discovery, medical product development, clinical care, and regulatory science. Recognizing this broad influence and the accepted vernacular of these varied fields, the group sought to first reach consensus around biomarker taxonomy.

For example, there’s misunderstanding about the various types of biomarkers and the distinction between biomarkers and surrogate endpoints. One challenge was to settle upon definitions that were broad enough to be used by diverse communities, including biomedical scientists, translational researchers, clinical researchers, medical product developers, and clinicians, and also across diverse types of products.

Where possible, to provide more context and insight into important terms, examples are given alongside many definitions in the BEST Resource. NIH and FDA intend to use the definitions included in this glossary when communicating on topics related to its contents (e.g., biomarkers) to ensure a consistent use of the terms and therefore, a common understanding of the issues. FDA’s Biomarker Working Group, with representation from all of our Centers, contributed to developing these definitions.

Now we need your help. We need your feedback and comments on the glossary. You can provide them at the BEST (Biomarkers, EndpointS, and other Tools) Resource.

In the meantime, we’ll continue to work on adding context to terms related to regulatory science, clinical trials, and laboratory science.

Effective, unambiguous communication is essential for efficient translation of promising scientific discoveries into approved medical products. Once we are all speaking the same language, we can tackle other challenges to bring the promises of biomedical research and clinical care to fruition.

The FDA-NIH Biomarker Working Group members include: from FDA – Shashi Amur, Robert L. Becker, Robert Califf, Aloka G. Chakravarty, David S. Cho, Nina L. Hunter, Ilan Irony, Christopher Leptak, Kathryn M. O’Callaghan, Michael A. Pacanowski, Elektra J. Papadopoulos, Vasum Peiris, Melissa Robb, Hobart L. Rogers, Rachel E. Sherman, Robert J. Temple, Ann Marie Trentacosti, and Sue Jane Wang; and from the NIH – Holli Hamilton, Pamela McInnes, Lisa M. McShane, and Monica R. Shah.

Melissa A. Robb, B.S.N., M.S. (RegSci), is FDA’s Associate Director for Regulatory Affairs, Office of Medical Policy, Center for Drug Evaluation and Research

Robert M. Califf, M.D., previously FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Medical Products and Tobacco, became FDA’s Commissioner of Food and Drugs on Feb. 25, 2016

More Collaboration, Research Needed to Develop Cures

By: Robert Califf, M.D.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s drug approval process—the final stage of drug development—is the fastest in the world, which means Americans typically have first access to new drugs when they are demonstrated to be safe and effective. But even as our agency has transformed the approval process—approving 51 new molecular entities and biological products last year alone, including more new orphan drugs for rare diseases than in any previous year—drug discovery and development is not keeping pace for many diseases.

Robert M. Califf, M.D., MACC, FDA's Commissioner of Food and Drugs

Robert M. Califf, M.D., Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration

In many cases, what’s holding back progress is a lack of understanding of the biology of disease, as we outline in a new report we are releasing today that compares diseases where there is a robust pipeline of new therapies with certain diseases that have few known treatments or cures.

For instance, when it comes to cancer, HIV/AIDS, and other viral infections, decades of intense research have given the scientific community and the FDA critical insight on how to develop effective treatments. Ongoing research has led to the discovery of biomarkers, which are characteristics that are objectively measured and evaluated as indicators of normal biological processes, pathogenic processes or response to a therapeutic intervention. Some types of biomarkers give insight on the genetic and metabolic characteristics that alter patients’ responsiveness to particular drugs, and others give insight into whether drugs in development are likely to work. This deep knowledge has resulted in important breakthroughs, rapid drug development and speedy FDA approvals.

While additional research is needed for all diseases, the paucity of reliable biomarkers in some diseases highlights the critical need for more research if we are to make much needed progress. Examples include Alzheimer’s and many rare diseases, as we outline in the new report released today. In these cases, the scientific community still lacks basic information about what causes these diseases and how they can be slowed and treated. When research does not offer answers to important scientific questions, cures cannot be developed. And when viable cures are not in the pipeline, focusing on regulation will not improve the situation, since FDA can only approve therapies with evidence for safety and effectiveness.

Once key scientific questions are answered, we can use a variety of tools to reduce the length and cost of initial clinical trials for drug approval for these disease areas, and we can provide guidance to industry including advice on how to develop additional reliable biomarkers. For instance, we’ve improved the efficiency and predictability of clinical drug development by developing tools such as biomarkers and surrogate endpoints—markers of drug effect that do not directly represent an improvement in how a patient feels or functions, but are reasonably likely to predict a clinical benefit. Thus, for example, lowering a patient’s blood pressure can be used as a surrogate for the clinical benefit of preventing heart attack. Such tools have modernized clinical trial designs and may dramatically reduce the length and cost of drug development. They also can help target drugs to specific patients who can benefit most, thereby limiting the number and size of clinical trials.

These are exciting times as we experience simultaneous revolutions in the biological and information sciences. We expect that the astounding increase in knowledge of biological systems enabled by whole genome sequencing, cloud computing, social media, and wearable devices to monitor physiology will create challenges to traditional thinking. And we are confident that this increased knowledge will continue to expand the pipeline of new therapies. This report emphasizes that we are prepared to deal with the product of this scientific investment by using regulatory paradigms that match the state of the science and by supporting dissemination of the latest knowledge applied to drug development.

In this paradigm that takes advantage of the depth of this new biomedical information, it will be critical to continue to support ongoing clinical trials and observational studies to ensure sufficient knowledge of the benefit-risk profile of therapies as they evolve into broad use. Even the best of the current surrogates such as systolic blood pressure cannot substitute for the entire cumulative effects of a drug on the intended biological target and for off-target effects.

We will continue to work to speed patient access to therapies shown to be safe and effective through our existing programs that allow for expedited review, development, and approval of certain medical products. To encourage innovation, we also will continue to work with other government agencies and the healthcare community, including members of patient groups, academia, and industry. It will take a collaborative effort to improve our nation’s understanding of certain diseases and to translate any resulting scientific discoveries into cures.

Robert M. Califf, M.D., previously FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Medical Products and Tobacco, became FDA’s Commissioner of Food and Drugs on Feb. 25, 2016.

More information can be found at: Innovation at FDA.

FDA Continues to Lead in Precision Medicine

By: Janet Woodcock, M.D.

Everyone knows that different people don’t respond the same way to medications, and that “one size does not fit all.” FDA has been pushing for targeted drug therapies, sometimes called “personalized medicines” or “precision medicines,” for a long time.

Janet WoodcockTargeted therapies make use of blood tests, images of the body, or other technologies to measure individual factors called “biomarkers.” These biomarkers can then be used to determine who is most likely to benefit from a treatment, who is at higher risk of a side effect, or who needs a different dose. Targeting therapy can improve drug safety, and make sure that only people likely to have a good response get put on a drug.

Targeted therapies have gained public attention since President Obama announced a Precision Medicine Initiative in his most recent State of the Union address. This initiative will reinforce our work at FDA, where development of targeted drug therapies has been a priority since the 1990s. In 1998, FDA approved the targeted therapy, Herceptin (trastuzumab), offering new hope for many patients with breast cancer. High levels of a biomarker, known as “HER-2,” identified breast tumors that were more likely to be susceptible to this drug.

Since the approval of Herceptin, the development of targeted therapies has grown rapidly. FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) approved 30 targeted therapies since 2012, including Kalydeco (ivacaftor), a targeted drug for cystic fibrosis. In 2014 alone, eight of the 41 novel drugs approved were targeted, including:

  1. Lynparza (olaparib) for the treatment of advanced ovarian cancer.
  2. Blincyto (blinatumomab) for the treatment of B-cell precursor acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).
  3. Harvoni (ledipasvir and sofosbuvir) to treat patients with chronic hepatitis C infection.
  4. Viekira Pak (ombitasvir, paritaprevir, dasabuvir and ritonavir) for the treatment of chronic hepatitis C infection.
  5. Cardelga (eliglustat) for the long-term treatment of Gaucher disease type 1.
  6. Beleodaq (belinostat) for the treatment of peripheral T-cell lymphoma.
  7. Zykadia (ceritinib) to treat patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).
  8. Vimizim (elosulfase alpha) for the treatment of Mucopolysaccharidosis Type IV (Morquio Syndrome).

Since the 1990s, FDA has also been working on personalized drug dosing. People differ in how they eliminate a drug—some eliminate it much more slowly than most other people and are susceptible to overdosing, and others eliminate it much faster, and may not get any effect. There are biomarkers to identify people who have these unusual results, and CDER has been actively working for more than 15 years to put these findings into drug labels, so that each patient gets the correct dose, particularly for highly toxic or critically important drugs.

Personalized drug safety has also gotten attention. Often, one person experiences a serious side effect that does not affect thousands of others. Science is beginning to unlock the reasons for these rare toxicities, and the labels of some medicines advise screening people to make sure they are not at high risk for a severe side effect. This can make drugs much safer.

CDER has been recognized with awards from the Personalized Medicine Coalition and the Personalized Medicine World Conference for its longstanding work in this area.

CDER uses a lot of flexibility when reviewing applications for targeted drugs. Targeting people with a good chance of response means fewer people are eligible for a drug. CDER has adapted to the resulting small development programs. For example, among the targeted therapies approved in recent years, almost 60 percent were approved on the basis of one main clinical trial along with supporting evidence. In addition, 90 percent used one or more of FDA’s expedited programs such as Breakthrough, Fast Track, Priority Review and Accelerated Approval.

It is still hard to develop targeted therapies for many diseases, because there isn’t enough scientific understanding of why the disease occurs and what biomarkers would be useful. For many common illnesses, much more research is needed to reveal the individual differences that would enable development of targeted therapies.

We still have much work to do. However, we are pleased to see substantial progress and look forward to continuing our efforts to advance biomarkers, which will help bring additional important new therapies to patients in need.

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

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