Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Congress Has Lump of Coal for FDA in Funding Bill

Congress finished some important work before leaving town for the holidays, finally enacting new funding legislation for the federal government for fiscal 2008. The bill, signed by President Bush December 26, is critical for the Food & Drug Administration, because it allows the agency to start using the new, higher user fees it was authorized to collect by the drug safety law signed in September.

That means the agency can continue its full-steam ahead approach to implementing the user fee provisions of the FDA Amendments Act—the one piece of the legislation that both FDA and industry share unreserved enthusiasm for.

But the new funding comes with a big hitch: a provision stipulating that FDA cannot transfer any money to its other initial priority in implementing the law: the new Reagan-Udall Foundation, a public-private partnership that is supposed to help FDA develop new scientific tools to enhance its regulatory mission.

That may not sound like much to worry about. The new foundation is broadly supported by industry, which welcomes any opportunity to advance drug development science—but it seems like an afterthought in the context of the big changes in FDA’s regulatory authority over drug safety that are the centerpiece of the new law.

There are, however, very significant implications to the dispute, which could ultimately be critical to determining what role industry will have in the development of a new active surveillance system for pharmaceuticals.

Representative Rosa DeLauro, who chairs the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees FDA, is concerned that the foundation may be an avenue for the pharmaceutical industry to exert more influence over the agency. She registered her concerns in a letter to FDA November 1.

FDA didn’t help the situation when it selected the board members for the foundation. The agency chose a very distinguished group to oversee the foundation, including former GlaxoSmithKline R&D President Tachi Yamada, who now heads the Gates Foundation’s global health program. On paper, Yamada is a perfect choice—his industry R&D background and current philanthropic position are hard to beat when considering the type of people who should oversee the foundation.

But the timing of the choice was disastrous. FDA announced the board selections on November 15—the same day that the Senate Finance Committee released a report on its investigation of claims that GSK intimidated an academic researcher who questioned the safety profile of Avandia. The report reviews a number of communications between GSK and the researcher, including emails from Yamada, and concludes that “the documents in the Committee’s possession raise serious concerns about the culture of leadership at GSK.”

Given DeLauro’s position that the foundation is an avenue to give industry undue influence over FDA, that made the selection of Yamada seem like a blunder.

Industry should hope that cooler heads prevail, and that DeLauro’s concerns can be assuaged. The Reagan-Udall Foundation should be a positive for drug development, and so pharma wants it to get off the ground.

But it is also the most viable short-cut to getting moving on a new active surveillance system for pharmaceuticals. The new law directs FDA to set up a public-private partnership to help build the database and develop the tools for analyzing signals to make regulatory decisions. The agency is leaning towards giving that mission to the new foundation—McClellan was one of the champions of including the provision in the FDA law in the first place.

Putting the new foundation in charge of developing the active surveillance system would address industry’s biggest concern with the project—whether product sponsors will have an appropriate role in shaping the new system.

That’s where things get really tough. DeLauro is already concerned about industry influence in the foundation. And Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee who oversaw the Avandia report, wants to play a role in shaping how the active surveillance project develops—at least to the extent it involves Medicare claims data. And Grassley’s view is that industry should have no role in analyzing that data.

So the fight over Reagan-Udall is probably just beginning. For industry the stakes may be higher than they seem.

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