Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Preparing for the CATT Study: Will Makena Controversy Have an Impact?

The first public presentation of data from the National Eye Institute’s head-to-head study of Lucentis vs. Avastin in macular degeneration will take place this weekend. The Comparison of Age-Related Macular Degeneration Treatments Trial (CATT) is sure to go down as an early landmark in the era of comparative effectiveness research—though exactly how it will be remembered is less clear.

We have written extensively about the unusual situation Genentech faces with the CATT trial—basically a government run study designed to prove that one Genentech product (Avastin) is just as good as another (Lucentis) at a vastly lower cost. The study was initiated and designed completely without Genentech’s help, prompted by outrage among providers who had been using Avastin off-label for AMD who experienced sticker shock when Lucentis was launched at a price of about $1,500 per dose, compared to $50 for the unapproved, microdose of Avastin.

It took a very long time to get the study off the ground, thanks in part to a series of administrative hurdles posed by the unusual circumstance of conducting a study in the Medicare population without the support of a willing sponsor. The planning for the trial began in 2005, but it didn’t really get going until 2008.

Now, at least, it is wrapping up—and in a juicy irony the study results will be reported right on the heels of a completely different controversy over an attempt by a sponsor to sell a product at $1,500 a dose to providers comfortably using an unapproved alternative that costs about $50 a dose. That, after all, describes the situation with KV Pharmaceuticals’ pre-term labor drug Makena.

The situations aren’t perfect parallels of course. KV launched Makena earlier this year, becoming the latest sponsor to pursue a strategy of obtaining FDA approval for a widely used unapproved medicine, in this case, the pharmacy-compounded ingredient 17P. Makena received an Orphan Drug designation, the only exclusivity KV can count on since the active ingredient is long off-patent. The application itself was an abbreviated one, referencing clinical studies conducted by the National Institutes of Health demonstrating a benefit in delaying pre-term labor in high risk women. (Though the NIH study wasn’t enough for a full approval; Makena received an accelerated approval with the sponsor committing to demonstrating a clinical benefit in the health of newborns.)

Lucentis feels very different. The active ingredient is a modified version of the monoclonal antibody known as Avastin, optimized (Genentech says) for use in the eye. Avastin itself is high science, the quintessential biotech breakthrough, an angiogensis inhibitor whose benefits were demonstrated at high cost and high risk by Genentech.

But the controversy around the two therapies is essentially the same: providers reacted to a de facto 3,000% price increase by complaining to anyone who would listen. Congress took note and pushed federal agencies to respond.

The nature of those responses has been very different. For ophthalmologists, use of Avastin is now common practice, especially for uninsured patients or in any circumstance where securing reimbursement for Lucentis may be in doubt. And the CATT study is supposed to help preserve the status quo by demonstrating non-inferiority between the two treatments.

For Makena, the key response came from FDA, which announced March 30 that it would not clamp down on compounders who continue to make 17P. (You can read more in “The Pink Sheet,” here.)

That simple action, coupled with CMS’ same day “reminder” to state Medicaid directors that they can continue to pay for compounded 17P if they choose, dramatically changes the commercial picture for KV, and the company reacted by slashing its price. The rest of the story has yet to be written, but we suspect KV will ultimately drive compounders out of the market and that will be that.

But the considerable attention generated by Makena should mean that the CATT study will garner even more interest than it already commands.

The question is, exactly what will that interest lead to?

That is where another connection to Makena comes into play: the question of how safe it is to use unapproved alternatives to an FDA approved therapy. Roche/Genentech has stressed that issue as a key concern with off-label use of Avastin all along, and the company sponsored a review of Medicare claims data that suggests there are indeed more adverse outcomes associated with that use than with Lucentis.

And recent comments by Center for Drug Evaluation & Research Director Janet Woodcock about the Makena controversy may shed light on how FDA views the issue.

Woodcock spoke at the Food & Drug Law Institute annual meeting in early April, less than a week after FDA issued the public statement on compounding and Makena.

It was therefore inevitable that she would be asked about the issue. Inevitable, and also a bit unfair. The controversy over Makena is clearly a political issue, with Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown spearheading an all out campaign for federal agencies to do something to address what he (and plenty of provider groups) felt was an outrageously high price for the drug. So FDA’s announcement that it would not clamp down on compounding of Makena clearly began at a level much higher than the CDER director.

Moreover, any drug regulator is bound to feel strongly that an FDA-approved product is safer than a pharmacy compounded product. Woodcock, who has devoted considerable energy to upgrading quality control in (regulated) pharmaceutical manufacturing, probably has stronger feelings on that score than most.

But it is Woodcock’s job to defend agency policy, and defend it she did.

She began by stressing the importance of placing the issue in the context of conflicting societal pressures. In the case of Makena, Woodcock suggested, the agency’s decision aimed to find that balance. In its March 30 public statement, FDA stressed the “unique” circumstances surrounding Makena, underscored the importance of assuring sterility in the injectable product, and noted that FDA may revisit its enforcement discretion at any time.

“We want a lot of things as Americans,” Woodcock noted. “We want orphan incentives. We definitely want people to study drugs in pregnant women, which they don’t do. We want affordable drugs. We want high quality parentals that are not contaminated with bacteria and killing people.”

“Sometimes all these wants conflict with each other. The question is, with all these different societal desires, how do we define a balance amongst them?”

Moderator Daniel Kracov (Arnold & Porter) suggested that the issue is whether it is appropriate for FDA to “play that role” of arbitrating among those competing desires.

Woodcock responded by stressing the limits on FDA’s ability to regulate compounding—not just questions about the scope of its authority, but practical limitations on its resources.

“In general, our enforcement policy on compounding has been that we are taking a risk-based approach and we are going after compounders that are having contaminated drugs.” She cited a recent outbreak of septic meningitis associated with total parenteral nutrition compounded by a pharmacy in Alabama. (Coincidentally, FDA issued a safety alert tied to that outbreak on March 30, the same day it announced its Makena policy.)

In addition to focusing on cases of contamination, “we will also go after serious health fraud,” like if a pharmacy is offering some substance as a replacement for insulin. “We have the risk-based approach down from that, but those are the primary objectives right now in compounding, because we have many many tasks that we have to enforce against.”

Panelist Nancy Buc (who recently retired as a partner at Buc & Beardsley) pressed Woodcock, noting that her own priority lists highlights injectable products as a priority. “One of the things that Makena brings us is GMPs and presumably sterility. Are you going to inspect the people who are compounding more than one dose for sterility?”

“I would ask you are we going to inspect people who are compounding drugs that are injected directly into the epidural space, or into the cerebral spinal fluid,” Woodcock responded.

“There are many concerns here. There are many, many compounded drugs that are intravenous. That poses a higher risk than the intramuscular injection” that is used for Makena and 17P compounds. “If you start talking about risk, I think there is a hierarchy. The greatest concern to me would be drugs injected into the eye, or into the central nervous system. Next would be drugs that are injected intravenously…then would be drugs that are injected intramuscularly.”

That’s right: drugs injected into the eye are the highest risk in the CDER directors view.

Was the CATT study already on her mind? Not really. “I wasn't thinking of Avastin in particular,” Woodcock told us when we contacted her about her remarks.

In fact, “I believe the division of Avastin vials is considered repackaging not compounding.”

“However,” Woodcock stressed, “I believe injection in or near the CNS is one of the highest risk situations for sterility problems.”

When weighing the impact of the CATT study findings, it seems safe to say that whatever impact they have, it won’t result in FDA issuing a statement saying it has no problems with widespread off-label use of Avastin.

1 comment:

Bill Sardi said...

These drugs cause abnormal blood vessels to recede and spares patients of the prospect of permanent vision loss. So the drug is a miracle. But the drug needs to be injected every 6-8 weeks. Primary care ophthalmologists objected to the use of the more expensive drug and said they would not refer patients to retinal specialists who used it. So there are many ethical eye doctors who oppose gouging of Medicare funds for treatment with a mirror-molecule. In the works is an oral pill that may avert the need for a needle stabbed into the eyes and would reduce costs 4-fold lower than the least expensive injectable drug. However, eye doctors discovered this oral pill over 2 years ago and elected not to publish their results. In that time many patients have needlessly lost their vision who would not consent to having a needle stuck into their eyes or who failed injectable-drug treatment.