Embracing Satan's PDUFA

August 19, 2016 Peter J. Pitts



The August 15th public meeting on the FDA’s PDUFA VI Commitment Letter was a love-fest (mostly) – but as Theresa Mullin, Director of CDER’s Office of Strategic Programs, wisely noted, “the devil is in the details." Indeed.

The meeting was in three panels: Pre-Market Review and Post-Market Safety, Regulatory Decision Tools, and Administrative Enhancements.

A few highlights and comments.

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Opening up the day, CDER Director Dr. Janet Woodcock commented that, since the introduction of the first PDUFA in 1993, “It’s a brave new world.” That’s certainly true, but some have been braver than others. As Aldous Huxley wrote in his novel, A Brave New World, “Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.”

Janet (and later on others) spoke about PDUFA VI building a Patient-Focused Drug Development (PFDD) “Bridge.” In other words, moving from holding meetings to developing “fit-for-purpose tools to better reflect the benefit/risk calculus of patients.” A key point, via Janet, is that by doing this the FDA will not be the PFDD “bottleneck." The devil is in the details.

She also pointed to a fully operational and funded Sentinel as a linchpin not just for advancing safety specifically pharmacovigilance more broadly, but also for accelerating the ecosystem of Real World Evidence. RWE was a major focus of the meeting. More to follow. Albeit to say – the devil is in the details.

The factoid of the day was that in FY2015 (to date), the FDA has held over 3000 PDUFA meeting requests. Don’t even bother doing the math, because that doesn’t include the intense meeting preparation division staff must undertake prior to any actual face-to-face (or teleconference) encounters. This is a highly significant statistic insofar as there was much discussion on enhancing sponsor-agency communications. Is more always better? It depends. As Walter Gropius said, “Less is more. But more tastes better.” Communications must now be more about quality than quantity but, from a PDUFA perspective, how can that be measured?

In a small but important improvement, the FDA will provide 72-hour notice to all manufacturers whose products will appear in the quarterly FDAAA-mandated Public Notification of Emerging Postmarket Medical Device Signals (921 Safety Notices).

Per Sentinel, it was mentioned a number of times (including on an FDA slide) that it will be used to “inform important regulatory decisions.” Does this mean Sentinel data will be used “beyond risk” to also “inform” FDA thinking on potential new benefits? Will Sentinel become a tool for validating Real World Evidence? That was not discussed – but maybe it’s time for it to be put on the table, perhaps at one of the RWE meetings promised in the agency’s commitment letter.

As promised, the FDA will publish an updated version of its Structured Approach to Benefit/Risk Assessment in Drug Regulatory Decision-Making. It’s been an arduous journey. It’s important to remember that the key tenet of the PDUFA philosophy isn’t speed, but predictability, and the ability to understand regulatory decision-making (and, ultimately reproducibility) is crucial. This is important for many reasons, not the least of which are the ever-increasing costs of drug development.

There was (Finally! At last!) much discussion about “staff capacity.” Not just more, but better. Not just quantity, but quality. One specific conversation focused on the need for better reviewer understanding of and training in adaptive clinical trial design models. Let’s face it, there aren’t a lot of people inside the FDA considered expert in (among other things) Bayesian statistical design. Better MAPPS and SOPPS (Manual of Policies & Procedures, Standard Operating Policies & Procedures), that were promised, and they will help. There have to be internal rules of the 21st century regulatory road as well as external guidance but – the devil is in the details.

Some positive forward motion on biomarker prequalification. Among other things, the FDA will create a website listing the biomarkers it’s working on. Per the FDA presentation, this is designed to help stimulate further development. It’s a start and more needs to be done. (More, always more! But without the internal expertise, how is the FDA to parse its expert resources?) Maybe it’s time for a more serious discussion of intramural cooperation. FDA needs adequate resources – beyond PDUFA funding -- to provide advice and oversee review and decision-making. One solution is to partner with an external entity (an Intramural Biomarker Consortium-IBC) to develop early advice and serve as an expert sounding board for nascent biomarker efforts. The IBC could be a required or voluntary resource in the review process, especially for initial data package reviews. This approach would allow FDA staff to focus on their primary role of product review and regulatory oversight.

PDUFA is an important path, but it isn’t the only one.

All present (FDA staff, patient groups, industry representatives) were very excited about the opportunities of PFDD next steps and Real World Evidence. But how to get there? As BIO’s Kay Holcombe said, “We cannot put anecdotes on the drug label.” Real World Evidence is the new star on the precision medicine horizon. But the tool set for using this treasure trove of healthcare information is nascent and the tasks as are daunting as the opportunities. Patient passion is important to share. When combined with data and a more dispassionate understanding of regulatory paradigms, a patient-driven pathway can and must evolve into a tool used to impact regulatory decision-making. The devil is in the details.

The most decidedly unsexy but most honest and important part of the meeting came last – a discussion of “administrative enhancements” including electronic submissions and data standard activities, hiring capacity, and financial management. It’s important to note that PDUFA VI is the first time that “hiring capacity” has been directly addressed – and it’s about time. The FDA must have the firepower to not only retain but to aggressively recruit the best and the brightest. Again, it’s not just about body count (quantity) but quality. Quality is not what you put in. It’s what you get out. “Staff capacity” means more (a lot more) than PDUFA-measurable hiring numbers. We need a PDUFA quality metric.

In the immortal words of Admiral Hyman Rickover, “The devil is in the details, but so is salvation."

This article originally appeared on DrugWonks.com and is shared here with permission.

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Peter J. Pitts  is an authority on global regulatory policy issues and an Executive Partner at YourEncore. He is a former FDA Associate Commissioner, the Chief Regulatory Officer for Adherent Health Strategies, and the President of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, a policy institute he founded in 2004.


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