FDA Takes Action Against Fraudulent Cancer Products

By: Donald D. Ashley, J.D., and Douglas Stearn, J.D.

A cancer diagnosis often provokes a sense of desperation. Unfortunately, rogue operations exploiting those fears peddle untested and potentially dangerous products, particularly on the internet. FDA responds in two ways: with compliance and enforcement actions against unscrupulous companies and with consumer education to decrease demand.

Donald Ashley

Donald D. Ashley is director of the Office of Compliance in FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research

Every one of FDA’s product centers and the FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs (ORA) has staff devoted to rooting out health fraud scams. These teams regularly investigate consumer complaints and monitor the stores and online marketplaces where such products are advertised. Recently the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition and the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research teamed up with ORA to search the Internet and social media for bogus products that falsely claim to diagnose, treat or cure cancer, a violation of federal law.

It was a challenging assignment.

Those marketing fraudulent products – primarily or exclusively on the internet – attempt to subvert compliance and enforcement efforts by changing the names of their products, their companies, and/or their websites.

Nevertheless, today we are announcing that 14 companies peddling bogus cancer cures have received warning letters from FDA. Warning letters are a primary compliance tool that FDA uses to address violations of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

Douglas Stearn

Douglas Stearn is director of the Office of Enforcement and Import Operations within FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs

These companies used slick ads, videos, and other sophisticated marketing techniques, including testimonials about miraculous outcomes. Often a single product was promoted as a treatment or cure for multiple diseases in humans and animals. Hoping to skirt the law on a technicality, some sellers made false claims and then in small print provided a disclaimer that their products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Making such obvious claims and then saying later that you are not doing so might seem clever, but the technique does not comply with federal laws intended to protect public health.

Each of these companies has 15 working days to respond with a plan to come into compliance with the law.

If necessary, FDA also has authority to take further action, including criminal prosecutions, product seizures, and injunctions. Companies that fail to come into compliance after receiving a warning letter can for example, face criminal prosecution and court-ordered decrees that require them to recall products and get written permission from FDA before resuming operations. The violations identified in the warning letters, if not corrected, are punishable by up to one year in federal prison, five years’ probation and a fine of either $100,000 or twice the gain from the offense.

FDA works diligently to monitor and take action against companies marketing unsafe products online and has issued more than 90 warning letters over the past decade to companies marketing fraudulent cancer products.

image of fake cancer curesConsumer education is critical in combating the dangers posed by these types of products. Thus, our recent cancer fraud initiative includes a push to raise consumer awareness and thereby decrease demand. Efforts include contacting media outlets that reach millions of consumers, posting a Consumer Update article at FDA.gov, and encouraging consumer groups, trade associations, and others to help us spread this important “buyer beware” information.

The message to consumers is this: These products are untested. Some contain ingredients that may be a direct risk to your health. The ingredients may interact in a dangerous way with professionally-prescribed treatments. They are not a substitute for appropriate treatments. Using these products can waste your money, and, more importantly, endanger your health.

Donald D. Ashley is director of the Office of Compliance in FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research

Douglas Stearn is director of the Office of Enforcement and Import Operations within FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs

FDA as part of a coordinated global response on Ebola

By: Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.

The tragic Ebola epidemic is an extraordinary global public health crisis, and FDA is taking extraordinary steps to be proactive and flexible in our response – whether it’s providing advice on medical product development, authorizing the emergency use of new diagnostic tools, quickly enabling access to investigational therapies, or working on the front lines in West Africa.

Margaret Hamburg, M.D.FDA has an Ebola Task Force with wide representation from across FDA to coordinate our many activities. We are actively working with federal colleagues, the medical and scientific community, industry, and international organizations and regulators to help expedite the development and availability of medical products – such as treatments, vaccines, diagnostic tests, and personal protective equipment – with the potential to help bring the epidemic under control as quickly as possible.

These efforts include providing scientific and regulatory advice to commercial developers and U.S. government agencies that support medical product development, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Department of Defense (DoD). The advice that FDA is providing is helping to accelerate product development programs.

Our medical product reviewers have been working tirelessly with sponsors to clarify regulatory requirements, provide input on manufacturing and pre-clinical and clinical trial designs, and expedite the regulatory review of data as it is received. FDA has been in contact with dozens of drug, vaccine, device, and diagnostic test developers, and we remain in contact with more than 20 sponsors that have possible products in pipeline.

We also have been collaborating with the World Health Organization and other international regulatory counterparts—including the European Medicines Agency, Health Canada, and others—to exchange information about investigational products for Ebola in support of international response efforts.

Investigational vaccines and treatments for Ebola are in the earliest stages of development and for most, there are only small amounts of some experimental products that have been manufactured for testing. For those in limited supply, there are efforts underway to increase their production so their safety and efficacy can be properly assessed in clinical trials.

As FDA continues to work to expedite medical product development, we strongly support the establishment of clinical trials, which is the most efficient way to show whether these new products actually work. In the meantime, we also will continue to enable access to investigational products when they are available and requested by clinicians, using expanded access mechanisms, also known as “compassionate use,” which allow access to such products outside of clinical trials when we assess that the expected benefits outweigh the potential risks for the patient.

In addition, under the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) authority, we can allow the use of an unapproved medical product—or an unapproved use of an approved medical product—for a larger population during emergencies, when, among other reasons, based on scientific evidence available, there is no adequate, approved, and available alternative. To date, FDA has authorized the use of five diagnostic tests during this Ebola epidemic: one was developed by DoD, two were developed by CDC, and this week FDA issued EUAs for two new, quicker Ebola tests made by BioFire Defense.

To further augment diagnostic capacity, we have contacted several commercial developers that we know are capable of developing rapid diagnostic tests and have encouraged them to work with us to quickly develop and make available such tests. Several entities have expressed interest and have initiated discussions with FDA.

We also are monitoring for fraudulent products and false product claims related to the Ebola virus and taking appropriate action to protect consumers. To date, we have issued warning letters to three companies marketing products that claim to prevent, treat or cure infection by the Ebola virus, among other conditions. Additionally, we are carefully monitoring the personal protective equipment (PPE) supply chain to help ensure this essential equipment continues to be available to protect health care workers.

And at least 12 FDA employees are being deployed to West Africa as part of the Public Health Service’s team to help with medical care. We are proud that they are answering the call.

As you can see, FDA has been fully engaged in response activities and is using its authorities to the fullest extent possible to continue its mission to protect and promote the public health, both domestically and abroad. Our staff is fully committed to responding in the most proactive, thoughtful, and flexible manner to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

I could not be more proud of the dedication and leadership that the FDA staff involved in this response has shown. I therefore want to take this opportunity to thank more than 250 staff, including those soon to be on the ground in West Africa, who have already contributed countless hours to this important effort, and who will continue to do so in the coming days and weeks as we address this very serious situation. I am hopeful that our work and the coordinated global response will soon lead to the end of this epidemic and help reduce the risk of additional cases in the U.S. and elsewhere.

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