The peril of breach of data integrity involving a top Indian pharma player, jolted many, probably for the first time, on September 17, 2008. On that day, the USFDA, reportedly, issued two ‘Warning Letters’ and an ‘Import Alert’. These were related to deficiencies in the drug manufacturing process and deviations from U.S. current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) at Ranbaxy’s Dewas and Paonta Sahib plants in India.
Since then, instead of demonstrable corrective measures, similar incidents had started ballooning – inviting more serious US-FDA actions, such as Import ban, consent decree, loss of market value, Loss of customer trust, among many others. The research article – ‘Overview of Data Integrity issues in the Pharmaceutical industry,’ published by the International Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences Review and Research, in its May-June 2018 issue, also reflects the same trend.
Much reported instances of breach of ‘Data Integrity’ were specific to generic drugs and mostly manufactured by Indian companies, besides China. While this may be true at that time, it is now spreading much beyond generic drug manufacturing in India and China – making its way into the global clinical trial arena. I also wrote earlier that ‘Data Manipulation: Leapfrogging Dangerously Into Clinical Trial Domain.’ With greater focus, this article will discuss not just how ‘Data Integrity’ issue is cropping up into clinical trials of even modern, complex, highly innovative and exorbitantly priced lifesaving treatments. Going beyond that, I shall also point towards increasing attempts to exaggerate the success of many cancer drug trials due to strong bias. Nevertheless, let me start by rehashing the relevance of ‘Data Integrity’ on patients’ health interest.
Data Integrity ensures safe, effective and high-quality drugs for patients:
According to US-FDA: ‘Data integrity is an important component of industry’s responsibility to ensure the safety, efficacy, and quality of drugs, and of FDA’s ability to protect the public health.’ Thus, data integrity-related cGMP violations may lead to regulatory actions, including warning letters, import alerts, and consent decrees, as the drug agency notified. In other words, maintain all types of ‘Data Integrity’ is a key requirement in the pharma industry to demonstrate that the final products conform to the required quality parameters.
These requirements are known to all generic drug exporters catering to the regulated markets, including the local manufacturers in the United States. Curiously, it continues to happen despite their full knowledge of the grave consequences of violations. The June 12, 2019 paper – ‘An Analysis Of 2018 FDA Warning Letters Citing Data Integrity Failures,’ published in Pharmaceutical Online, brings out some interesting facts, related to drug manufacturing area.
From the analysis of 194 ‘Data Integrity’ associated ‘Warning Letters (WL).’ from 2008 to 2018, the top 5 countries in this regard came out as follows:
No. of WL
|% to Total
Interestingly, over 76 percent of US-FDA Warning Letters (WL) are on manufacturing ‘Data Integrity’ and were issued to pharma companies located in China, India and the United States. Moreover, when it comes to all types WL related to various types of regulatory malpractices, India again featured as one of the top violators. Be that as it may, I shall now focus on the spread of this decay in other important drug safety related areas, such as clinical trials.
Ironically, breach of ‘Data Integrity’ in another crucial area, like clinical trials for new drugs, doesn’t seem to attract public attention as much, which I shall reason out below – also explaining why it’s so.
Breach of ‘Data Integrity’ in clinical trial – more crippling for the company:
‘Data Integrity’ concern pertaining to clinical trials was recently expressed in an article, published by the Food and Drug Law Institute, in the April-May 2019 issue of its Update Magazine. The paper reiterated: ‘Good Clinical Practice (GCP) data integrity issues can at times be more crippling to a company than Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) data integrity issues.’ Elaborating the point further, the authors highlighted, where such issues are severe, the drug regulatory agency may completely reject the data submitted in new drug applications, supplemental drug applications, and abbreviated new drug applications.
This outcome is quite akin to import bans for generic drugs into the United States, as it would cause a huge setback for the company, affecting clinical development programs for the new drug. Moreover, as the article says, such action would be ‘costing the sponsor substantial time, money, and reputational credibility, not to mention delaying patient access to new drugs.’
‘Dozens of recent clinical trials may contain wrong or falsified data’:
This is claimed by the research paper that was discussed in ‘The Guardian’ on June 05, 2017 carrying the headline - ‘Dozens of recent clinical trials may contain wrong or falsified data, claims study.’
In this study, John Carlisle, a consultant anesthetist at Torbay Hospital, reviewed data from 5,087 clinical trials published during the past 15 years in two prestigious medical journals, JAMA and the New England Journal of Medicine, and six anesthesia journals. In total, 90 published trials had underlying statistical patterns that were unlikely to appear by chance in a credible dataset, the review concluded.
As one of the top medical experts quoted in this paper, said: “It’s very scary that we may be treating patients based on false evidence.” He further added: “It may be the case that certain treatments may need to be withdrawn from use.”
Another October 01, 2013 report, citing a specific example of the same, wrote: ‘Japan’s ministry of health has concluded that studies based on clinical trials for Novartis’s blood pressure drug Diovan contain manipulated data.’ It also added: ‘Diovan was approved for use in Japan in 2000, but recently two universities who hosted and analyzed trials for Novartis – the Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine and Jikei University School of Medicine – reported finding evidence of data fabrication.’
Thus, from available reports, it appears, just as the saga of ‘Data Integrity’ related drug manufacturing keeps continuing, the same related to clinical trials doesn’t seem to fall much behind. But, the valid question that may follow – why then reported instances of breach of clinical trial data integrity isn’t as many?
Breach of ‘Data Integrity’ found by USFDA is rarely reported:
The answer to the above question may be found in The BMJ study, published on February 10, 2015. It brought to the fore – ‘Research misconduct found by FDA inspections of clinical trials is rarely reported in journal studies.’ This review was based on identified 57 published clinical trials for which an FDA inspection of one of the trial sites had found significant evidence of research misconduct, including falsification or the submission of false information, problems with adverse event reporting.
The researcher also noted that serious misconducts related to clinical trials, are rarely mentioned in subsequently published journal articles in the same area. More disturbing to note, this critical gap in the transparency of clinical trial reporting is now sneaking into even highly specialized treatment, such as ‘Gene Therapy’, and that too involving a Big Pharma name.
US-FDA has now raised this question even for a ‘Gene Therapy’:
A media report of September 09, 2019 highlights, that Novartis is facing an uproar over data manipulation involving USD 2.1 million gene therapy Zolgensma, which treats spinal muscular atrophy, a leading genetic cause of death in infants. According to this report, Novartis gave “detailed explanations” on Aug. 23 to the FDA about the company’s investigation into the data manipulation and addressed regulators’ questions over why the company waited until late June to make disclosures. However, quoting the FDA, the report indicates, ‘Novartis could face possible civil or criminal penalties.’
Prior to this, another report of August 13, 2019, stated that ‘documents referenced in a Form 483 by the FDA, which inspected the lab a month after it learned of the falsified records, also suggest the data-fudging began at least in early 2018 and could have been uncovered by managers at AveXis during several steps in the clinical outcome assessment.’ The gene unit of Novartis is called AveXis, which had announced the US-FDA approval of Zolgensma on May 24, 2019.
Such instances involving clinical trials with new, complex and highly innovative therapies, further reinforces already existing ‘Data Integrity’ related health safety concern. The cost of these new treatments being so high, it’s perplexing to fathom the necessity of cutting corners in clinical trials, if at all. More so, when these are avoidable to establish efficacy, safety and high-quality standard of the therapy to drug regulators for marketing approval.
Beyond ‘Data Integrity’ – in clinical trials:
Just as ‘Data Integrity’ issue in generic drug manufacturing has intruded in the clinical trial arena for novel treatments, yet another concern, also related to data, goes much beyond what is happening today in this area. This fast-emerging practice is related to ‘cherry-picking data’ for biased clinical trial reporting, adversely impacting public health safety, as brought by several research studies.
Very recently, this was vindicated by another paper published in The BMJ on September 18, 2019. It raised a serious concern of bias in clinical trial data submitted to regulatory agencies for marketing approval of even lifesaving drugs. The findings of the above paper concluded:
Between 2014 and 2016, almost half of the most pivotal studied forming the basis of European Medicines Agency (EMA) approval were judged to be at high risk of bias, based on their design, conduct or analysis. Accepting that some of these might be unavoidable because of complexity of cancer trials, it noted that regulatory documents and the scientific literature had gaps in their reporting. Journal publications also did not acknowledge the key limitations of the available evidence identified in regulatory documents. This concern too keeps growing.
As discussed above, six broad and important points to note for any ‘breach of integrity’ or ‘cherry-picking’ of data in the pharma industry:
- Takes place mostly in two known areas – manufacturing and clinical trials.
- Involves both cheaper generic drug manufacturing, as well as, clinical trials of most innovative and highly expensive treatments – conducted even by Big Pharma constituents.
- ‘Cherry-picking data’ for biased clinical trial reporting while obtaining marketing approval, involves even cancer drugs.
- Any such avoidable malpractices with ‘data’, could seriously impact patients’ health interest, raising a public concern.
- Instances of such malpractices usually become public, only when the perpetrators are caught by vigilant drug regulatory agencies, such as the US-FDA, or when external experts can trace their footprints through sophisticated analytical tools.
- Multiple instances of wrongdoing of this nature, often by the same company, despite requisite regulations being in place, and also after facing penal actions, make it mostly a self-discipline issue of repeat offenders.
It’s a different discussion all together, whether or not ‘data’ is a new oil – air or water. But maintaining the sanctity of data, while generating, interpreting, presenting or even leveraging these, including for commercial considerations, must not be compromised, at any cost.
Today, breach of ‘Data Integrity’ and ‘Cherry-Picking of Data’ for biased reporting, are creeping into new drug clinical trial domain – from its usual habitat of generic drug manufacturing, posing a greater threat to patient safety. At the same time, none can say, either, that it’s happening with all drugs, at all the time and by all drug manufacturers. But, if and when it happens, it could lead to a catastrophic consequence both for patients and their family.
Be that as it may, country’s top drug regulators should strive harder for an ongoing and meaningful engagement with the pharma industry on this avoidable development. It could well be a carrot and stick approach, where repeat violations by any company would pose a risk of legal survival of the business.
By: Tapan J. Ray
Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.