FDA Advisory Committees: Independent, Informed, Essential, and Evolving

By: Robert M. Califf, M.D.

One of the most common concerns raised when I meet with medical leaders is the need to improve the function of FDA’s Advisory Committees (ACs). ACs play a key role in FDA’s decision-making process by providing independent expert advice on extraordinarily complex issues. Just as importantly, they offer a forum for open and transparent discussion about these processes. As their name suggests, ACs are only advisory, but they can yield unique insights into understanding the balance of benefits and risks of products.

Not every product is brought to an advisory committee — when the answers are clear, the FDA makes decisions without consulting an AC. But when products present challenging issues or involve developing areas of science, the views of experts in relevant fields can provide essential perspective needed to make good decisions.

They also provide a barometer for the public on Agency thinking in a given field and offer insight into Agency decision-making and requirements for successful product development in a particular setting. The views expressed and votes taken can have financial impacts on companies and can lead to changes in how investments are made in therapeutic areas. So it is not surprising that the deliberations and views of ACs often receive significant media attention.

ACs have been the subject of ongoing discussions concerning their impartiality, their transparency, and how they affect decisions made about FDA-regulated products. In response to these concerns, the FDA is taking a closer look at the AC meeting process to determine what changes may be needed to ensure that ACs remain able to provide crucial expert advice relevant to the uncertainties that prompt such meetings.

Robert Califf

The process of engaging the expertise needed for ACs requires careful consideration, and the goal of ensuring that such a critical function leads to the best advice with optimal public trust by eliminating or managing conflicts is embedded in both law and culture at FDA. Experts who comprise ACs generally are classified as “special government employees” (SGEs) of the FDA. As such, they must declare any potential conflicts of interest and undergo a rigorous financial screening to ensure that they do not have a conflict or apparent conflict that could preclude their participation. SGEs are also expected to be free of intellectual bias that may foreclose their ability to consider the data and questions with an open mind.

Sometimes, a compelling interest can justify allowing a SGE with a potential conflict to participate. In such a case, the prospective AC member must be granted a waiver or appearance authorization, which provide a mechanism for clearly delineating the reasons for allowing that person to participate and requires disclosing the conflict. This aspect of the AC process has evolved over time, becoming increasingly complex and burdensome.

In 2007, the Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act (FDAAA) restricted the FDA’s ability to use waivers for SGEs as part of an effort to reduce bias among AC members by allowing minimal or no financial conflicts. This led to concerns from multiple stakeholders about whether the FDAAA provision was in fact discouraging the most qualified experts from serving on ACs and thus depriving FDA of the best possible guidance on important scientific issues.

In response to these concerns, Congress included a provision in the 2012 Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act (FDASIA) that encouraged FDA to weigh an AC member’s conflicts against the need for that participant’s scientific expertise. However, despite this added flexibility, there are many who believe FDA has not been aggressive enough in advocating for waivers — a circumstance that they believe has sometimes resulted in difficulty obtaining the optimal expertise needed to address the complex problems typically brought to ACs. And some outside the Agency have wondered whether this means FDA is moving to reduce use of ACs.

The process for AC participation itself has led to other criticisms. Across academia, the AC system is seen as overburdened with unnecessary paperwork. Additionally, FDA has faced criticism that the concept of an “imputed interest” is interpreted so that academic leaders with significant experience and insight are considered to have conflicts relating to grants and contracts held by faculty members at the same institution — even if they themselves have no involvement with the project. The proliferation of roadblocks to serving as an SGE has led some within FDA and key leaders in various scientific fields to question the value of ACs in their current form.

After indepth discussion with the medical product and tobacco Centers, OMPT initiated a process improvement evaluation using Lean concepts, which comprise an industrial engineering toolset used for process improvement. These tools were applied to the AC process to fully understand the administrative requirements for planning meetings and screening potential SGEs. We are confident that administrative processes, both inside FDA and for SGEs, will be streamlined as a result.

The next step will be to evaluate current policies and identify areas where the evaluation of conflicts of interest for SGEs can be modernized. We must consider questions such as the criteria for disqualifying AC members from specific activities, the appropriate scope of “imputed interests,” and the interrelationship between the advisory role of AC members and the decisional role of Agency employees.

Even more importantly, we must engage in wide-ranging discussions inside and outside FDA about the best ways for the Agency to get the advice it needs to make critical decisions that protect and promote the health and safety of all Americans. To obtain the best expertise possible, we must optimally configure and administer our ACs.

There is no question that we must appropriately address potential conflicts for our SGEs.  However, we must also ensure that experts working in their fields are not unnecessarily foreclosed from participation in the AC process. As we continue to improve the mechanics of ACs and to reduce unnecessary administrative burdens, we must also address the appropriate mix of expertise on committees, so that FDA scientists and staff get the advice they need to make the best decisions on behalf of the American public.

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