Improving Patient Access To Biosimilar Drugs: Two Key Barriers

Novel biologic medicines have unlocked a new frontier offering more effective treatment for a host of chronic and life-threatening diseases, such as varieties of cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes, to name just a few. However, these drugs being hugely expensive, many patients do not have any access, or adequate access, to them. According to the Biosimilar Council of GPhA, only 50 percent of severe Rheumatoid Arthritis patients receive biologic medicines, even in the United States, Europe and Japan, leave aside India.

Realizing the gravity of this situation, a need to develop high quality, reasonably affordable and similar to original biologic brands, was felt about ten years ago. These were intended to be launched immediately after patent expiry of the original biologic. Such medicines are termed as biosimilar drugs. It is worth noting, even biosimilar drug development involves complex manufacturing processes and handling, while dealing with derivatives of highly sensitive living organisms.

The regulatory approval process of these drugs is also very stringent, which demands robust clinical data, demonstrating high similarity, both in effectiveness and safety profile, to original biologic brands, known as the reference product. The clinical data requirements for all new biosimilars include data on patients switching from the originator’s brand, and also between other biosimilars. Clinical evidences such as these, are expected to provide enough confidence to physicians for use of these products.

An article published in the PharmaTimes magazine in January 2016, reiterated that over the last couple of years, a wealth of supporting data has been published in medical journals and presented at global congresses, including real-world data of patients who have been switched to the new drug from the originator. This has led to a positive change in physician and patient attitudes towards biosimilars.

The good news is, besides many other regulated markets, as of May 2017, five biosimilar drugs have been approved even by the US-FDA, and several others are in the pipeline of its approval process.

That said, in this article I shall mainly focus on the two key barriers for improving patient access to biosimilar drugs, as I see it.

Two major barriers and their impact:

As I see it, there appear to be the following two key barriers for more affordable biosimilar drugs coming into the market, improving patients’ access to these important biologic medicines:

  • The first barrier involves fierce legal resistance from the original biologic manufacturers of the world, on various grounds, resisting entry of biosimilar varieties of their respective brands. This compels the biosimilar drug manufacturers incurring heavy expenditure on litigation, adding avoidable cost. A glimpse of this saga, we are ‘privy’ to witness even in India, while following Roche versus Biocon and Mylan case related to ‘Trastuzumab’. This barrier is one of the most basic types, that delays biosimilar drug entry depriving many new patients to have access to lower priced effective biologic for the treatment of serious diseases.
  • The other major barrier that exists today, involves ‘interchangeability’ of original biologic with biosimilar drugs. It simple means that in addition to being highly similar, a biosimilar drug manufacturer would require producing indisputable clinical evidence that it gives the same result for any given patient just as the original biologic. We shall discuss the reason behind this regulatory requirement later in this article. However, this is an expensive process, and the absence of it creates a barrier, making the physicians hesitant to switch all those existing patients who are on expensive original biologic drugs with less expensive available biosimilar alternatives.

The first or the initial barrier:

The first or the initial barrier predominantly involves patent related legal disputes, that can only be settled in a court of law and after incurring heavy expenditure towards litigation. Provided, of course, the dispute is not mutually resolved, or the law makers do not amend the law.

An interesting case in India:

Interestingly, in India, a similar dispute has knocked the doors of both the high court and the Competition Commission of India (CCI). From a common man’s perspective, it appears to me that the laws under which these two institutions will approach this specific issue are seemingly conflicting in nature. This is because, while the patent law encourages no market competition or a monopoly situation for a patented product, competition law encourages more market competition among all related products. Nonetheless, in this specific case CCI is reportedly investigating on the alleged ‘abuse of the regulatory process’, as it has opined ‘abuse of regulatory process can constitute an abuse of dominance under the (CCI) Act.’                                                                                            

The second barrier:

I am not going to discuss in this article the relevance of this barrier, in detail. Nevertheless, this one is also apparently equally tough to comply with. The very fact that none out of five biosimilar drugs approved in the United States, so far, has been considered ‘interchangeable’ by the US-FDA, vindicates the point.

That this specific regulatory demand is tough to comply with, is quite understandable from the requirements of the US-FDA in this regard, which goes as follows:

“To support a demonstration of interchangeability, the data and information submitted to FDA must show that a proposed interchangeable product is biosimilar to the reference product and that it can be expected to produce the same clinical results as the reference product in any given patient. Also, for products that will be administered more than once, the data and information must show that switching a patient back and forth between the reference product and the proposed interchangeable product presents no greater risk to the patient in terms of safety or diminished efficacy when compared to treating them with the reference product continuously.”

The reasoning of innovative biologic drug makers:

On this subject, the stand taken by different innovative drug makers is the same. To illustrate the point, let me quote just one of them. It basically sates, while biosimilar drugs are highly similar to the original medicine, the patient’s immune system may react differently due to slight differences between the two medicines when they are alternated or switched multiple times. This phenomenon, known as immunogenicity, is not a common occurrence, though. But there have been rare instances when very small differences between biologic medicines have caused immune system reactions that changed the way a medicine was metabolized, or reduced its effectiveness.

It further reiterates, the US-FDA requirements to establish ‘interchangeability’ between a biosimilar drug and the original one, or between biosimilars may seem like nuances, but are important because ‘interchangeability’ allows pharmacists to substitute biosimilars without consulting the doctor or patient first.

It may, therefore, indicate to many that innovative biologic drug manufacturers won’t want substitution of their expensive biologic with more affordable biosimilar drugs, on the ground of patient safety issues related to immunogenicity, though its instances are rather uncommon.

Some key players in biosimilar drug development:

Having deliberated on the core subject of this article, let me now very briefly name the major players in biosimilar drug development, both in the developed world, and also in India.

The first biosimilar drug was approved by the US-FDA in 2006, and the product was Omnitrope (somatropin) of Novartis (Sandoz). It was the same in the European Union (EU), as well. Subsequently, many other companies reportedly expressed interest in this field, across the globe, including Pfizer, Merck, Johnson and Johnson, Amgen, AbbVie, Hospira, AstraZeneca and Teva, among many others.

Similarly, in India, the major players in this field include, Biocon, Sun Pharma, Shantha Biotech, Dr. Reddy’s Lab, Zydus Cadila, Panacea Biotech and Reliance Life Sciences.

As featured on the Amgen website, given the complexity and cost of development and manufacturing, biosimilars are expected to be more affordable therapeutic options, but are not expected to generate the same level of cost savings as generics. This is because, a biosimilar will cost US$100 to US$200 million and take eight to ten years to develop. Whereas, a small molecule generic will cost US$1 to US$5 million and take three to five years to develop.

The market:

According to the 2017 report titled “Biosimilar Market: Global Industry Analysis, Trends, Market Size & Forecasts to 2023” of Research and Markets, the market size of the global biosimilar market was valued over US$ 2.5 billion during 2014, and it surpassed US$ 3.30 billion during 2016. The global biosimilar market is projected to surpass US$ 10.50 billion by 2023, growing with a CAGR between 25.0 percent and 26.0 percent from 2017 to 2023.

According to this report, gradually increasing awareness, doctors’ confidence and the lower drug cost are expected to boost the demand and drive the growth of the global biosimilar market during the forecast period. Segments related to diabetes medicine and oncology are expected to attain faster growth during the forecast period. Patent expiry of several blockbuster drugs is a major basic factor for growth of the global biosimilar market, as it may encourage the smaller manufacturers to consider producing such biologic drugs in those segments.

Conclusion:

Biosimilar drugs are expected to benefit especially many of those patients who can’t afford high cost biologic medicines offering better treatment outcomes than conventional drugs, in the longer term. These drugs are now being used to effectively manage and treat many chronic and life-threatening illnesses, such cardiac conditions, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, HIV/AIDS and cancer.

However, improving patient access to high quality biosimilar drugs, at an affordable price, with increasing competition, could be a challenge, as two key barriers are envisaged to attain this goal. Overcoming these meaningfully, I reckon, will involve choosing thoughtfully a middle path, creating a win-win situation, both for the patients, as well as the industry.

Adequate competition in the biologic drug market is essential – not only among high-priced original biologic brands and biosimilars, but also between biosimilar drugs. This is so important to increase patient access to biologic drugs, in general, across the world, including India.

The current situation demands a sense of urgency in searching for a middle path, which may be created either through a legal framework, or any other effective means as would deem fair and appropriate, without compromising with patient safety, at least, from where it is today.

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.

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