Friday, January 18, 2008

Whose Life is it Anyway?

No one really wants to shout it from the rooftops, but for FDA and the drug industry, Monday's Supreme Court’s decision not to consider whether terminally ill patients have a legal right to access unapproved drugs is a little more sweet than bitter.

The decision by the high court ends a long, topsy-turvy, and often emotional legal fight by the Abigail Alliance to allow patients access to investigational drugs and biologics outside the clinical trial setting. (The alliance is named for Abigail Burroughs, who passed away in 2001 while trying to gain access to the then-investigational cancer drug cetuximab, now marketed by ImClone and Bristol-Myers Squibb as Erbitux.)

Along with the Washington Legal Foundation, the Abigail Alliance sued FDA in 2003 to allow access to unapproved drugs after the completion of Phase I studies. A Washington, DC district court initially dismissed the case, but the decision was overturned by a three-member panel of the US Court of Appeals. This August, an en banc appeals court reversed the decision, prompting WLF to ask the Supreme Court to consider the case.

Appealing to the Supreme Court is always a long-shot legal strategy, but the high court’s consideration of the Abigail Alliance lawsuit could have resulted in significant changes for FDA and industry. Check out full coverage of the Abigail Alliance lawsuit in The RPM Report here and here. If you don’t yet subscribe, you can sign up for a free trial at

For FDA, a win by Abigail Alliance would have meant changing its regulations to make it easier for patients to access investigational medicines. FDA has had mechanisms in place for patients to access unapproved drugs outside the clinical trial setting since the 1970s, including “treatment use” and “emergency use” INDs—mechanisms that the Abigail Alliance argued are insufficient and overly bureaucratic.

But FDA argued that it has a “compelling interest” to restrict some patients from getting investigational drugs—namely protecting them from what might be an unsafe product. And given the intense congressional scrutiny over drug safety since the Vioxx withdrawal, you can bet FDA doesn’t have warm and fuzzy feelings about giving really sick patients a drug that hasn’t yet passed the approval hurdle.

For manufacturers, expanding access would have presented a tricky dilemma: balancing the goodwill gesture of granting a patient a dying wish against the threat of litigation should something go wrong. That’s not a comfortable place to be: Amgen’s outside attorney Mark Gately (Hogan & Hartson) said he “dreaded the day” that FDA changed its regulations—or a court ordered it to do so.

But it doesn’t look like that day will come anytime soon. FDA obviously isn’t budging, and it’s unclear whether a new commissioner would change its legal interpretation of the issue. Congress could pass legislation to expand patient access to unapproved drugs, but the Abigail Alliance’s big advocate on Capitol Hill, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), doesn’t seem to be making it a top priority this session.

The Washington Legal Foundation’s press release has an air of finality to it, but it isn’t conceding defeat: “We will continue our effort to persuade FDA that terminally ill patients deserve better access to drugs that FDA has deemed suitable for large-scale clinical trials.” But we’re not going out on a limb to say that’s a long-shot proposition.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Unavailability of Provenge and the Disappointment of the Terminally Ill

*FDA’s mission statement: To promote and protect public health

Terminal patients are those who are not expected to live due to usually illness such as advanced prostate cancer (cT3). If the patient has 6 months or less to live, those patients are considered terminally ill.

Regardless, if a patient is terminal, they are without a cure or tolerable treatment for their illness. Since such patients will likely die in a short period of time, treatment options, even if unproven, are often desired by such patients. This is understandable, because at such a severe stage of illness, such as prostate cancer, possible extension of their lives with comfort is worth it to them, regardless of lack of evidence of proof of whatever treatment that may be advantageous to them regarding these issues. The FDA, however, claims authority on the treatment options of such patients, although that administration has proven itself over the years to be rather inadequate with its frequent drug recalls and black box warnings, and they do these things only under pressure from the public, usually.

Prostate cancer is a rather frequent occurrence- with between 10 to 20 percent of men predicted to acquire the disease during their lifespan, resulting in about 30,000 deaths a year from this disease of the one million men. Furthermore, out of all cancer types, more are dying from prostate cancer now than other cancer types.

For those unaware, there are different stages of prostate cancer, and the more severe the prostate cancer cases are which is determined by such methods as bone scans and Gleason’s scores, which is a score that assesses prostate tissue after it is biopsied and if it is determined that the stage of cancer is severe by this and to estimate proper treatment options if proven to be malignant.

Typically, the initial suspicion of prostate cancer is determined by the results of what is called a PSA blood test, as PSA is a protein produced by prostate cancer cells. If the PSA blood test is above normal limits, a prostate biopsy is performed to determine and confirm not only the presence of cancer, but also the severity of the disease on such a patient.

Yet fortunately, and as you will read, innovation still exists in medicine. A few years ago, a small Biotechnology company called Dendreon was working on a conceptually new treatment for the worst prostate cancer patients, and this treatment therapy created by Dendreon was named Provenge.

Provenge is the first immunotherapy biologic treatment for the progressed prostate cancer patients, and has proven to be a very novel and innovative treatment option for advanced prostate cancer patients who are terminally ill. Usually, these patients are unresponsive to usual treatment methods for prostate cancer, and are left with chemotherapy as their only treatment option at such a traumatic stage of prostate cancer. Understandably, most patients at this stage refuse treatment entirely, largely due to the brutal side effects of such chemotherapy treatments as taxotere. The immunotherapy method developed by Dendreon required the removal of white blood cells of the diseased patient and, after altered, are re-injected into this patient now designed to attack what is called PAP, which is on prostate cancer cells only. This treatment required only three such injections in a period of six weeks. This resulted in life extension twice that of chemotherapy treated prostate cancer patients of this severity, and without the concerning side effects of chemotherapy. The medical community and survivors of prostate cancer were elated and waited with great anticipation for access to this treatment method.

Fortunately, as the years passed, Provenge, by 2007, had convinced others of its safety and efficacy in its benefit for severe prostate cancer patients. This caused great joy to such patients and their families. Perhaps greater elation was experienced by the caregivers and specialists of such a disease, such as Urologists and Oncologists who treat such patients. While Provenge was on fast track status at this time at the FDA, the FDA panel thankfully recommended with clarity the approval of Provenge based on its proven and substantial efficacy and safety demonstrated in its performance in past trials. The FDA announced this to the public in the early Spring of 2007, I believe.

Now for the bad news: With great shock and surprise, the FDA agency rejected the approval of this great treatment for very sick patients due to, they said, ‘lack of data’ in May of 2007. This contradicts their favorable opinion of Provenge weeks before delivering this terrible news. Especially when one considers the FDA Commissioner is a prostate cancer survival himself!

Soon after this judgment was passed by the FDA, conflicts of interest were discovered by others. For example, a member of the FDA agency who was evaluating Provenge, Dr. Scher, was found to have a financial commitment to a future competitor of Provenge that was being produced by a company called Novacea, and this company had signed a co-promotion agreement with Schering with this similar prostate cancer drug being developed by this company. Dr. Scher never disclosed this conflict during the approval process of Provenge. As it turns out, this anticipated prostate cancer drug made by Novacea was discovered to have serious flaws, and Schering pulled out of the agreement with Novacea. In addition to this incident and before May of 2007, baseless letters were anonymously delivered to the FDA stating negative qualities about Provenge that were without Merit and speculative claims about the treatment. Yet overall, the disapproval by the FDA of Provenge angered many, and a newly formed advocacy group called Care to Live filed a lawsuit against the FDA for their clear lack of protocol or knowledge about such complex treatment agents as Provenge at the end of last year.

Terminal patients, I surmise, desire comfort during their progressive disease that has placed them in the last chapter of their lives, and certainly should have a right to choose any treatment that possibly could benefit them. At this stage of such a patient, one could argue, safety of any treatment option is not of concern to these patients, because they are going to die anyway. Yet the FDA, with reckless disregard and overt harshness for these very ill patients, ultimately harmed others more by not approving Provenge with deliberate intent.

The FDA does in fact presently have the ability to grant what is called conditional approval for such treatment methods as Provenge, and why they have not expanded this approval process to all terminally ill patients remains completely unknown. What is known is that they are harming those they pledged to protect so long ago by depriving such patients in need of treatment, as no other options are viable presently that are as safe and effective with great tolerability associated with Provenge. So now the FDA appears to be a bought, corrupt, and incompetent administration without loyalty and dedication to the public and its health. This needs to be corrected in any way possible for the lives of others. A terminally ill patient has a personal right to obtain and access such treatments upon their own volition as well as the discretion of their doctor, just as a terminally ill patient is granted an individual right to die, if they choose to do so. It is an individual decision in such cases that should be void of interference from others.

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” --- Aldous Huxley

Dan Abshear