Friday, September 14, 2007

EPO’s Future Back in FDA’s Hands

FDA Commissioner von Eschenbach: Whose Side is He On?

That sigh of relief you heard on Tuesday came from Amgen and Johnson & Johnson, when an FDA advisory committee declined to recommend significant changes in the labeling for EPO products in renal failure patients. As a commenter put it in response to our preview of the meeting, “history didn’t repeat itself.”

Probably just as important for the companies was the tone of the meeting. It was a tough meeting—any advisory committee focusing on safety concerns with your biggest products is going to be tough—but in general FDA officials avoided making inflammatory comments or otherwise suggesting that they are going to somehow make life even tougher for the anemia therapy sponsors.

After the meeting, a bunch of Wall Street analysts did something they haven’t done in a long time: they raised their forecasts for 2008 revenues from Aranesp, Epogen and Procrit, and Amgen’s stock responded accordingly.

So is the worst over?

Well, that depends. After the meeting, FDA officials said they plan to finalize the new labeling for the EPO therapies in a matter of weeks. The new labeling will address use of the drugs both in the renal failure/dialysis setting and in oncology.

And right now at least, the oncology setting is where the action is. Amgen, J&J and the oncology profession are waging an all fronts campaign to reverse the restrictive coverage policy put in place by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services in that setting.

A key point of contention is whether CMS’ policy contradicts the FDA-approved labeling for the drugs. (The RPM Report has just published its latest coverage of that issue online. Not a subscriber? You can read the story for free by registering for a 10-day trial here.)

The argument that CMS is restricting access to FDA-approved uses of EPO clearly resonates politically. ASCO’s point about the conflict between CMS’ policy and the EPO label was cited in a “sense of the Senate” resolution urging reconsideration of the coverage decision.

So when FDA issues final labeling plenty of people will be paying close attention. The sponsors hope that FDA will reinforce their view that CMS’ treatment model is ridiculous—in particular, by repudiating the ceiling that CMS has set on hemoglobin levels for chemo patients. If that is how the final labeling reads, the pressure on CMS to reconsider its policy is sure to intensify.
Of course, there is another possibility: FDA could back up CMS instead.

FDA is not likely to insist on labeling that requires treatment exactly along the lines proposed by CMS, but FDA could try to tweak the labeling so that it more clearly states that treatment should maintain hemoglobin levels at the lowest level to prevent transfusions.

Or the agency could support CMS less formally, simply by stating publicly that the coverage policy is consistent with FDA approved labeling. FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach is an oncologist by training, the former head of the National Cancer Institute, and a prostate cancer survivor. With the political pressure on CMS ratcheting up, the Medicare agency is surely rooting for some show support from the commissioner of FDA.

But will they get it?

So far, there has been nothing. An FDA spokesperson says she is unaware of any plans for the agency or the commissioner to weigh in on the coverage policy, saying that falls outside the agency’s “central mandate to review drugs for safety and efficacy.”

The head of FDA’s Office of Oncology, Richard Pazdur, participated in the September 11 advisory committee review of EPO use in renal failure, but he did not use that forum to make any comments about the CMS coverage policy.

But stay tuned. The September 11 advisory committee review is definitely not the last word on EPO.

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