“Uncontrolled clinical trials are causing havoc to human life. There are so many legal and ethical issues involved with clinical trials and the government has not done anything so far.”
This is exactly what the Supreme Court of India observed while responding to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) on the subject in January 2013.
While Indian regulators with the active intervention of the Supreme Court are trying to grapple with, besides others, the basic ‘human rights’ aspect of the Clinical Trial (CT), many countries in different parts of the world are moving much ahead at a brisker pace. They have started thinking and putting in place more patient centric newer drug approval systems and also, in tandem, hastening the process of bringing new drugs to the market.
Current general scenario in CT:
Currently, after pre-clinical studies and before applying for regulatory approval, a new drug has to be tested on volunteers in randomized studies to prove its efficacy and safety on patients. Relatively short duration of new drug trials can hardly establish long-term safety and efficacy, which are now arrived at through extrapolation of data collected during CT period.
It is worth noting, the overall situation changes dramatically after launch of these products, as their usage expands from a relatively smaller number of CT volunteers to millions of real-world patients.
In a situation like this, unrealistic expectation of patients’ safety in perpetuity based primarily on extrapolation of very limited CT data is being increasingly questioned today.
That is why, on going post-marketing surveillance, which is also known as a Phase IV CT, is considered as a much more effective process to gauge relative superiority of the drug against the existing ones in terms of both efficacy and safety on a longer term.
That said, today one reads and hears umpteen number of accusations for almost lack of any meaningful response on the part of the pharmaceutical companies, in general, towards revelations of post-marketing surveillance data. This could, in turn, expose the patients to various types of risks, including wasteful healthcare expenditure.
The ‘Magic Moment’ in the present regulatory process:
A recent paper highlights a single “Magic Moment” between pre and post-licensing processes in the current drug-approval model in many countries. In this system, the use of a drug is tightly controlled in a narrowly defined pre-licensing population. Thus, CTs are also conducted on such pre-defined and relatively homogeneous volunteers, who are generally free from complicating conditions.
However, after ‘The Magic Moment’ of marketing approval, a large number of heterogeneous patient population, with many of them on multiple therapy, also use these new products in uncontrolled settings. Situations as these had led to post-marketing major drug withdrawals like, Vioxx and Avandia due to patients’ safety.
These grave concerns have led to a strategic shift in the drug regulatory approval scenario throwing open new ideas in the drug approval process.
To find the right answer to this vexing issue the drug regulators in many countries are reportedly seriously contemplating to imbibe a process that will continuously help analyzing information through ongoing post-marketing surveillance data. Continuous medical data analysis like this will enable the regulators to modify their earlier decisions on marketing approval and also medical reimbursements related to pricing reasons.
This new process is called ‘Adaptive Licensing (AL)’, which is expected to benefit the overall healthcare system, by not allowing medical reimbursement of treatments with those drugs, which will provide negligible benefit over existing low cost therapies.
Difference between current mechanism and AL:
According to a ‘Health Canada’ paper titled, “The Path to Adaptive Drug Regulation”, the difference between the two is as follows:
As explained above, post-licensing i.e. after ‘The Magic Moment’ of regulatory approval, treatment population grows rapidly and treatment experiences do not contribute to evidence generation.
After initial license, treated patients grow more slowly due to regulatory restrictions. Patient experience is captured to contribute to real-world information. The marketing license is also modified accordingly from time to time.
Most desirable for many drugs:
Experts in this field opine that AL will help bringing in alignment of all required processes so important for a new drug seen from patients’ perspective like, R&D, regulatory approval and market access with the active involvement of all stakeholders like, the pharmaceutical companies, the drug regulator, payors/insurance companies and also the researchers.
In the AL system, a transparent drug development process will provide enough data on risk-benefit profile of the concerned drug to satisfy the drug regulator for its quick marketing authorization on pre-determined types of patients.
Such approval will follow real-life monitoring of efficacy and safety for modification of the drug license accordingly, wherever and whenever required.
Thus, AL is expected to strike a right balance balance between timely access to new drugs for the patients and the need to evaluate real time evolving information on safety and efficacy leading to a well-informed patient centric decisions by the drug regulators.
A continuous regulatory evaluation and decision-making process:
AL intends to evaluate a drug through its entire life span. It has been reported that during this long period, clinical and other data will “Continue to be generated on the product through various modalities, including active surveillance and additional studies after initial and full licensing. The artificial dichotomy of pre vs. post licensing stages (‘The Magic Moment’) will be replaced by graded, more tightly managed, but more timely and potentially more cost-effective market entry and market stability.”
Not necessary for all drugs in the near term:
It is worth noting that AL system may not perhaps be required for all pharmaceutical or biologic products and will not totally replace the current system of drug licensing process, at least in the near term.
AL process may immediately be followed only for those products with a favorable risk-benefit drug profile as demonstrated in the initial data and there is a robust reason for early market entry of this drug to meet unmet needs, simultaneously with ongoing studies.
The ‘Magic Moment’ freezes in India…in perpetuity:
As per the Drugs and Cosmetics Act of India, after obtaining drug marketing approval from the regulators, concerned pharmaceutical companies are required to follow the pharmacovigilance system in the country to own the responsibility and liability of the drugs as enunciated in the Schedule Y of the Act. Unfortunately, this is hardly being followed in India, ignoring patients’ safety blatantly.
With the plea that most products launched in India are already being marketed in many developed markets of the world, the concerned companies prefer to depend on clinical experiences in those markets. This attitude totally bypasses the regulatory requirement to follow a robust pharmacovigilance system in India. Indian drug regulators also do not seem to be much concerned about this important patients’ safety related requirements, very surprisingly not even for biosimilar drugs.
However, the current ground realities are quite different. As we witness today, there does not seem to be much difference in time between international and India launch of innovative products. Thus, the argument of gaining medium to long-term experience on safety and efficacy from international data related to these drugs, does not seem to hold any water at all.
On the contrary, some drugs withdrawn from the international markets on safety grounds are still available in India, despite ire and severe indictment even from the Indian Parliamentary Standing Committee.
In a situation like this, AL process of Marketing approval for selected newer and innovative drugs may be considered by the Indian Drug Regulators, just not to be more patient centric, but also to help evaluating pricing decisions of innovative drugs failing to demonstrate significantly better treatment outcomes as compared to the existing ones.
A recent example of AL:
One of the latest drugs, which reportedly will undergo such regulatory scrutiny of USFDA is Tacfidera (dimethyl fumarate) used for the treatment of multiple sclerosis, approved in April 2013 and costing US$ 54,900 per patient per year. Interestingly, Tacfidera, before the drug can find itself on a formulary, will need to demonstrate its effectiveness in the real world.
The report indicates, “the first six months after a drug launch are always about educating payers about its benefits, and while most large payers are likely to make a decision to reimburse the drug in the next twelve months, data collection will continue and changes in policies might be made at a later date.”
Thus, in the years ahead, whether a new drug will become a blockbuster or not will very largely be decided by the ongoing real world data. If the promise of a drug diminishes at any point of time through clinical data, it will certainly going to have consequential financial and other adverse impacts.
Another interesting recent development:
Under new pharmacovigilance legislation in Europe, the European Medicines Agency has reportedly announced the list of over 100 drugs that soon will bear the “black triangle” logo. This initiative is directed to encourage both the doctors and patients to report side effects to enable close monitoring of drug safety.
Criteria to include drugs under additional monitoring are:
- Medicines authorized after January 1, 2011 that contain a new active substance.
- Biologics for which there is limited post-marketing experience.
- Medicines with a conditional approval or approved under exceptional circumstances.
- Medicines for which the marketing-authorization holder is required to carry out a post-authorization safety study (PASS).
- Other medicines can also be placed under additional monitoring, based on a recommendation from the European Medicines Agency’s Pharmacovigilance Risk Assessment Committee (PRAC).
Global regulatory experts do believe that in the concept of AL, there are still some loose knots to be tightened expeditiously to make it a fully implementable common drug marketing authorization process. Appropriate pilot projects need to be undertaken in this area to establish beyond any doubt that AL will be decisively more preferable to the current regulatory process.
As and when AL will become the preferred drug-licensing pathway across the world, it is expected to offer greater real benefits of new drug development to the patients for their optimal use at an affordable price.
That said, some other experts do opine as follows:
“No matter how fast the authorization process operates, the merits of innovation will not be felt until they reach patients. And the barrier between authorization and patient access remains, in most of Europe, the issue of reimbursement.”
While all these are fast developing in the global CT scenario, in the jangle of Clinical Trials‘ in India, ‘Adaptive Licensing’ has still remained a critical missing ingredient even to encourage a wider debate.
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.