Tuesday, November 29, 2016
It looks like congress is finally going to pass the 21st Century Cures Act. Its 996 pages long! Please read it yourself (just kidding). Of course, this doesn’t even come close to France’s labor laws at 3500 pages – but its still impressive. The bill contains over $6 billion in funding most of which will go to NIH for work on opioid addiction, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. There is no doubt that the NIH needs more money since funding has been flat for years – therefore, corrected for inflation – we’re on a downward spiral. But targeted funding like this tends to take money and attention away from other areas of need – like antibiotic research for example.
So – what’s in it that’s good for antibiotics? Lots!
Limited Population Antibiotic Development (LPAD). There is a clear pathway spelled out for the FDA on antibiotics for use in limited populations where approval is based on smaller data sets than would normally be expected. Of course, we all know that the FDA is already doing this under existing regulations – but this puts Congress on record as supporting this approach. The FDA apparently thinks that this law will help them do more to bring new antibiotics to market quicker – and if the FDA thinks this will help then so do I. (OK – I changed my tune . . .). The best example of what the FDA can do is their approval of cetazidime-avibactam based mainly only on phase II data. Hopefully, more drugs can now be approved more quickly in this way. One also hopes that pathways will now appear for the rapid approval of pathogen-specific antibiotics (see my last blog on this).
Novel Clinical Trial Designs. The Secretary HHS is ordered to convene a public meeting providing input to the kinds of novel clinical trial designs and statistical methods that would be required to implement LPAD. This would then be followed by guidance from FDA in this regard. I suspect this is already in the works and the infectious disease group has already held public meetings on this.
The role of BARDA is clarified and expanded. But BARDA probably still does not have the funding to provide a business model for pathogen-specific antibiotics.
Antimicrobial susceptibility testing. The FDA is ordered to establish a website with interpretive criteria for susceptibility testing that will be frequently updated and that will start upon approval for each newly approved drug. The FDA will have the authority to rely on outside organizations for help here – similar to the way this works in Europe. I don’t see anything here that will speed the availability of automated testing to laboratories and physicians in the US. This is still desperately needed and I don’t see a way forward here as yet. The most important aspect of this part of the Act appears to be the updating of information on already marketed antibiotics. But that, in and of itself, is a major advance.
Breakthrough Diagnostics. There is a section on the rapid development and approval of new diagnostic devices. This is an important section that might make it more feasible to bring new rapid diagnostic testing devices to the US market. We have been way behind Europe in this regard.
Recruitment and Retention at FDA. There is an entire section spelling out the skills that will be required for new hires in the clinical review roles at FDA. This includes provisions for justifying higher salaries and other areas that would allow more efficient recruitment and better retention of FDA employees. This is obviously needed based on what I have been reading. I didn’t see anything there specifically on conflicts of interest and making exceptions although the Secretary of HHS is to report back to congress as to needs in this area. There is also nothing related to getting more expertise on advisory panels by waiving some conflict of interest criteria.
As I noted, there are obvious areas where the bill could still be improved. Hopefully the bill will pass without amendments to defund Planned Parenthood for example.
My congratulations and thanks to Pew Charitable Trust and to the Infectious Diseases Society of America for their tireless efforts to get this passed over the last 3-4 years.
But, at the end of the day, until we have a business model that works for antibiotics, our pipeline will remain dry in spite of this legislation.
Sunday, November 20, 2016
I just returned from giving a talk to microbiologists on the issues surrounding the clinical development of antibiotics with activity against specific pathogens – that is – the opposite of so-called broad-spectrum drugs. I used as an example an antibiotic that targets Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Polyphor’s POL 7080.
Microbiologists play an important role in constraining the use of antibiotics in both the hospital and community settings. They are interested in the development of antibiotics that are more specific and therefore less likely to engender antibiotic resistance as collateral damage. What I mean is – when treating someone for a Pseudomonas infection with a carbapenem antibiotic, you may select for resistance in Klebsiella since the carbapenem kills indiscriminately. At least with a drug that targets only Pseudomonas, you only have to worry about selecting resistance in Pseudomonas.
I pointed out that, at least today, from a regulatory point of view, we still don’t know how to run a feasible trial that will result in marketing approval for such a drug. While I am confident that this problem will ultimately get solved, I am not so sure about the business model for such a drug.
The problem for this sort of antibiotic is that it will be used, at best, only sparingly. From the stewardship point of view – this is the ideal situation. But, if the company marketing the product has to depend on sales volume, it will be even more difficult to provide a return on investment for this sort of antibiotic compared to a broad-spectrum agent that can more easily be used on an empiric basis. Since companies are not in the business of providing for the public health in some sort of charitable way, why would they spend their limited resources on developing this sort of product? We, as a society, need to provide a business model that will work.
In Europe, where most countries already have a form of socialized medicine, the models being discussed all include some sort of market entry reward. In all these models, when a company gets approval to market an antibiotic that meets pre-determined criteria, they receive a payment of some sort. How this payment is distributed is the basis of the debate on which model to use. Regardless of the model, the payment would be such that it would provide a return on investment for the company. While such a model was about to be put into use, I understand that everything is now on hold awaiting a better understanding of what Brexit will mean for payers in Europe.
Here in the US, the model that seems to be preferred by people discussing this issue is the so-called patent voucher. In this system, a company that successfully brings a needed antibiotic to market would be rewarded with an additional period of exclusivity on the product of its choice from its portfolio of marketed products. If, for example, the company were Gilead, it might choose extra time of exclusivity for one of its multi-billion dollar Hepatitis C drugs. This would guarantee a return on investment for the new antibiotic even if it were only used for a small number of patients every year. The last time this model was discussed by the lobbying group from the Infectious Diseases Society back in 2004-5, the model was dead on arrival in congress partly because of the blowback from both consumers and the generics industry. How this model will fare under a Trump administration is impossible to predict – but past experience on the Hill is not encouraging.
My own opinion is that we need something beyond price and that Allergan’s experience makes a strong argument for that view. Allergan will now struggle for several years to achieve the analysts’ peak annual sales forecast of $300 million if it ever does so. And this level of sales, albeit it is only in North America, may not be enough for many companies in any case. Other pharmaceutical companies will be watching this closely and they may not be encouraged. But we need more large companies to join the fight against antimicrobial resistance through the research and development of new antibiotics active against resistant pathogens. The experience of Allergan coupled with continued dithering on the Hill does not bode well for our goal of bringing more large companies into the field.
Monday, November 7, 2016
A recent article in the Washington Post caught my eye. The FDA apparently has over 700 vacancies in its drug evaluation group. This lack of resource is holding up drug reviews. According to the piece, Dr. Janet Woodcock complains that qualified candidates would much rather work in industry because the salaries are so much higher. But she also goes on to explain the draconian hiring process at the FDA where all potential conflicts of interest must be reviewed and rectified before the person is hired. And this says nothing about the lengthy federal candidate review process.
I agree with Josh Sharfstein who says the problem is not just the salary. It’s the rest of the process. To be hired, one has to divest all stocks or other investments in companies that might pose a conflict of interest – as in virtually all pharmaceutical companies. This probably excludes most folks with the kind of experience the FDA actually needs in its reviewers. That is, people who have worked in industry designing and carrying out clinical trials designed to get drugs approved by the FDA. Given the devastation that’s been occurring because of pharmaceutical company consolidation, there are lots of experienced folks out there who might be interested in working for the FDA. But who wants to go through the process, divest all of one’s pharmaceutical company stock and then wait three months for news as to whether one can be hired or not?
What is the FDA doing now? They use contractors. I admit that I don’t know what regulations there are for conflict of interest for contractors – but I expect they are not as draconian as those for full time employees.
And then there are folks like me. I’m retired. I wanted to work at the FDA on a voluntary basis – expecting that they would pay my expenses – but no salary. I strongly believe that we need the FDA and we need it to be effective and efficient – something that the antibiotics group has not been until recently. In retrospect, the particular role I wanted to play is probably superfluous at this point since the antibiotics group is now functioning much better than it was at the time – albeit more slowly than I would like. But in my discussions with them, they noted that I would have to be a contractor and they would have to pay me. Hmmm . . .. .As it turned out, they didn’t avail themselves of my services – probably because they thought they had things covered internally at that point (and they seem not to have been wrong). But I’m not sure that I would have met their conflict of interest criteria either as a contractor or even as a volunteer given my experience in the pharmaceutical industry.
So who do they hire? The most likely candidates would be those coming from academia. They probably have little experience in the areas where the FDA needs expertise – so they get trained while working at FDA. The same problem exists for the FDA advisory boards where there is dearth of industry experience and key recommendations frequently lack the insight that previous industry-based trial experience can provide. It turns out that the academics on the advisory boards are probably just as conflicted as industry folks might be. The young clinical reviewers that might be hired from academia will not be at the same level of experience as those on advisory boards and hence would be free of those conflicts. But they would also be free of experience. Is that a good thing? I’m not convinced that it is.
So, while I think that increasing salaries for new hires at the FDA is a good thing, it is not nearly enough to crack this problem. The FDA has to reinvent itself in a way that allows it to take advantage of the experience and gray hair that is now abundantly available in the world outside the federal government. Given the paranoia about conflict of interest, I expect that this won’t happen tomorrow. But we need to at least start the conversation before this opportunity simply goes away with age and evolution to other interests.
Friday, October 21, 2016
I don’t know about you, but for me, this is the season of low expectations. My brother-in-law constantly reminds me to keep my expectations low and my standards high. In this US campaign season, I find that it is increasingly hard to avoid feeling blue by continually lowering those expectations.
A good example is the result of the UN General Assembly. The opportunity to actually do something concrete about the emerging crisis of antibiotic resistance in the absence of a robust pipeline of new antibiotics was an exciting one. But as often happens when multiple players with competing interests get together to try and accomplish something, we now play a waiting game. Although what to expect at the end of the wait is not really clear. Recently, Allan Coukell of the Pew Charitable Trust wrote a summary of the UNGA statement. 193 countries signed a political statement that is extremely vague and does not include any commitment for financial resources to spur innovation. 13 pharmaceutical companies signed a separate statement where exploring new ways for the public and private sector to collaborate to spur innovation was a goal. The divide between industry and government seems clear. The UNGA expects to revisit the issue in two years.
What we need now is some way to assure antibiotic developers that they will achieve a return on their investment. There are a number of ways this could be funded. First, the savings on health care provided by having the means to treat infections will be enormous – it just requires a capital investment in our future. Second, if more immediate funding is required, we could charge a very small tax on current pharmaceutical sales that would be dedicated to an antibiotic market fund. This tax would be applied to all pharmaceuticals without exception – but would need to be pennies or less on the dollar.
A nagging worry for me is whether, at this point in time, even if we identify a financial mechanism to assure a return on investment, pharmaceutical companies will be interested enough to return to antibiotic research. I have been asking the folks at DRIVE AB to investigate this – but have heard nothing as yet. I recently heard that Merck was skeptical of the market entry rewards that we have been discussing. They may be more interested in pricing and reimbursement as the preferred market mechanism. That will likely remain the way forward in the US in any case.
We need to train our antibiotic hunters of the future before we lose all our expertise to the ravages of time and the current lack of funding for antibiotic research.
And we need to continue working on new regulatory pathways for antibiotic development – especially for pathogen-specific products.
We need to raise the prices of key generic antibiotics like penicillin to avoid drug shortages.
Beyond all this, we need to improve our surveillance globally, control the use of antibiotics in agriculture, and improve our stewardship of antibiotic use in humans. But even with these steps, we will have a constant need for new, effective antibiotics and for that we need to correct our current problem of the market failure for antibiotic discovery.
I find that I am unable to lower my expectations sufficiently to avoid this current state of depression around the state of progress in global antibiotic policies that is afflicting me. A sure cure would be the commitment of at least a few national authorities to the market entry rewards that Astra-Zeneca was negotiating before their antibiotics business was sold to Pfizer. But, alas, I fear that all this is now on hold.