By: Janet Woodcock, M.D.
At FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER), drug safety is among our highest priorities. Before we approve a drug, we make every effort to ensure its benefits outweigh its risks. After approval, we keep a careful watch for new safety issues that can arise once new therapies are prescribed for a broad population of patients.
It’s a complex and ever-changing responsibility. As drug therapies become increasingly advanced, so too must our methods to prevent and/or manage risks related to their use. These risks come in many forms – including adverse events (side effects), problems arising from inappropriate or incorrect use, manufacturing issues related to sophisticated new production techniques, criminal tampering or counterfeiting, and the devastating effects of addiction, like that of the opioid epidemic. And, as innovative study methods provide new information, new safety issues can emerge for drugs that have been on the market and widely used for decades. For these reasons, we focus our efforts both on newly approved drug therapies and those already on the market.
Our annual report, Drug Safety Priorities 2017, provides updates on our ongoing initiatives, discusses new work, and highlights last year’s safety-related milestones and achievements.
Protecting the American public from risks associated with medications requires teamwork from many scientific and medical specialists at FDA working together to inform decisive regulatory action. Key efforts include the Safe Use Initiative to reduce preventable harm from medications; the FDA Adverse Event Reporting System (FAERS), which collects vast amounts of data about side effects and medication errors from medical products reported by patients, health care professionals, and manufacturers; and the Sentinel System, our state-of-the-art electronic drug safety surveillance system. We also collaborate with health care professionals, academia, researchers, and other health and science agencies in studying the effects of medications before and after approval to help ensure that the benefits of these therapies outweigh their risks.
Our report describes many ways CDER worked in 2017 to enhance drug safety for the American public. These include:
- Safety surveillance and oversight of marketed drug products: In 2017, CDER’s Office of Surveillance and Epidemiology (OSE) conducted 7,446 safety reviews. Of those, 2,860 were initiated as a result of ongoing OSE surveillance.
- The importance of real-world evidence to help advance drug safety science: Although randomized clinical trials (RCTs) are the gold standard for medical and scientific evidence needed to support FDA drug product approval decisions, they are often conducted in specialized and controlled research settings and are time-consuming and costly. And at the end of a drug development program, RCTs can leave critical questions unanswered, particularly about the effects or impacts of a drug after it gets into the “real world,” and is used by hundreds of thousands of people over an extended period. CDER safety scientists are using powerful new scientific computing and data storage technologies to enhance our capabilities of gaining valuable information from “real world evidence.”
- New tools and new approaches for fighting our Nation’s opioid crisis: Our report emphasizes that in 2016, an estimated 11.5 million people misused prescription opioids — and that each day of that year, an estimated 116 people died from an opioid-related overdose. FDA actions taken in 2017 in response to the opioid epidemic align with our current four key priorities in this area: 1) decreasing exposure and preventing new addiction, 2) safely treating those with opioid addiction, 3) developing safe and effective novel alternative therapies to opioids, and, 4) improving enforcement of safety measures and assessing benefit-risk ratios.
- Safety oversight for generic drugs: The report explains how we evaluate generic drugs to ensure they meet quality standards and deliver the necessary amount of active ingredient, and how we monitor generic drug use in the marketplace to flag early safety concerns. CDER’s Clinical Safety Surveillance Staff (CSSS) is addressing post-marketing safety concerns related to complex generic drug-device combination products. In 2017 a generic drug had two intravenous (IV) bag ports (rather than a single IV bag port used by the brand name drug). This difference raised concerns for potential confusion, risk of incompatibility issues, and potential adverse events in patients. The CSSS’s collaboration activities led to the development of a new process for managing review of similar IV bags with different port configurations.
- Efforts to reduce preventable harm from medications: More than a million Americans are injured or killed each year due to preventable medication errors. FDA’s Safe Use Initiative works to reduce preventable medication-related errors, such as medicines dispensed in error, medicines taken for too long or not long enough, or medicines inappropriately mixed with other medicines or with foods that can increase risks of side effects. Among many other efforts, our work through the Safe Use Initiative in 2017 included making recommendations to enhance the safety of fluoroquinolone antibiotics, identifying “high-risk” prescribers (those who write prescriptions for high doses or co-prescribe with medications which increase the risk of adverse events) and educating them about safer prescribing practices, and identifying which diabetic patients may be at high risk of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
- Compounded drugs – continuing regulatory and oversight efforts: FDA has taken many steps to strengthen safety measures for compounded medications since the 2012 outbreak of fungal meningitis associated with contaminated compounded drugs. Among other actions, the agency conducted 140 inspections, sent 55 warning letters, and issued 40 recalls related to compounding.
- Diverse strategies, tools, and services for communicating drug safety: Effectively communicating what we do is an essential component of our work to protect the public. In 2017, we responded to 57,094 inquiries from the public (39,883 by phone, 16,269 by e-mail, and 942 via written letters), each an opportunity to help a patient ensure they are safely using their medication. Our Drug Safety Podcasts reached an estimated 350,000 listeners each week. These and many other communication efforts, such as our Drug Safety Communications that alert consumers and health care professionals about new or potential safety issues, serve to keep the public informed of important drug safety concerns that may impact them.
The report also details a variety of ways we keep pace with the rapid evolution of technology. For instance, we are evaluating the use of technologies, such as machine learning methods and other advanced computation techniques, to help our analytics systems contribute to more predictive safety and risk data. We are also exploring ways to leverage mobile apps, social media, and electronic prescribing data while ensuring patient privacy. As we pursue a wide-ranging safety agenda, CDER Drug Safety Priorities 2017 offers a deeper dive into FDA’s drug safety research, surveillance, and regulatory activities. We hope this report serves to demonstrate CDER’s ongoing commitment to protect the American public.
Janet Woodcock, M.D., is the Director of FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research