The Curious Conundrum of New Drugs Approval Process

Fathoming the details of just a short span of time, not going beyond the last 10 years, I find from the published data that many new drugs, such as, Alatrofloxacin, Aprotinin, Drotrecogin alfa, Lumiracoxib, Propoxyphene, Rofecoxib, Rosiglitazone, Sibutramine, Tegaserod, Tetrazepam, were withdrawn from a number of important global markets. Quite a few of those were withdrawn also from the world market.

The key reason for almost all these withdrawals was serious safety concerns for the patients while using these medicines. Interestingly, some of these new molecules were withdrawn even after attaining the blockbuster status, such as Rofecoxib.

Tens of thousands of patients have died only because of this reason, according to reports.

It is widely believed by the experts in this area, if full public disclosure of the entire data of drug clinical trials was made, most of these new drugs would not have seen the light of the day and without putting many patients’ health safety in jeopardy.

All this is a part of a curious conundrum in the new drug approval process, across the world, for various reasons. In this article, I would try to dwell on this issue.

Voices against this ‘unethical practice’ getting louder:                                             

On December 22, 2015, ‘CBC News’ published an interesting article, titled “Researcher issues ‘call to action’ to force release of hidden drug safety data: Bringing drug industry data into the light of public scrutiny.”

The article echoed the same belief of other global experts and, in fact, went a step forward. It categorically reiterated, if full disclosure of the entire data of drug clinical trials is made public, medical practice might have been quite different.

To drive home this point, the article cited the example of the arthritis drug rofecoxib (Vioxx), which has been linked to tens of thousands of deaths related to heart attacks.

It highlighted, although this risk was very much known to the regulatory authority of the United States, the relevant data was not released to the public for an impartial scrutiny.

Quoting different sources, the paper observed, almost half of the drug trials remain secret and the studies that are published, overwhelmingly report results that make the drug in question look good.

Independent experts’ views differed from the innovator companies:

In some cases, when researchers were able to see what is hiding in the filing cabinets of the drug innovator companies, a different picture altogether emerged on the overall profile of those drugs.

One group looked at 12 antidepressants, comparing the published studies with the internal US FDA assessments. They found that 94 per cent of the published studies were positive, as compared to 51 per cent, when they included all of the studies assessed by the drug regulator.

Based on a detailed study, the authors concluded, without considering all the data, drug effectiveness can often be exaggerated, leading doctors and patients to assume that the medications work better than what they actually do. The ongoing practice of the drug players may help them to significantly diminish the risks, related to the benefits offered by these medicines.

A few months ago, another group analyzed the data from an unpublished drug company study about the effect of Paxil on teen depression and found that the drug did not work and was not safe for the patients. This result completely contradicted the original, unpublished study on this drug.

A crusader emerged in Canada:

Interestingly, the same article, as above, states that Mathew Herder , the health law associate professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada is now taking up the fight. He is now “calling on other doctors, researchers and journalists to bombard Ottawa with their own demands for drug industry data, using the new legislative lever called the ‘Protecting Canadians from Unsafe Drugs Act,’, which was passed late last year in Canada. 

He has also created a template to help doctors, researchers and journalists access drug safety data at Health Canada. Herder reportedly could even include biomedical researchers, doctors who prescribe medicine, investigative journalists pursuing questions about drug safety, and other activists and patient groups.

This example is worth imbibing elsewhere.

The Rule Books are in place, though with loopholes:

To curb such alleged patient unfriendly practices of the innovative drug manufacturers, while obtaining the marketing approval of new drugs, various rules and procedure were put in place, by various authorities.

I shall deliberate below a few of these rules, and enough loopholes therein, enabling the interested parties to hoodwink the external experts, at the cost of patients.

International Clinical Trials Registry Platform:

Much before Herder, following a ministerial summit on Health Research in 2004, a World Health Assembly Resolution passed in 2005 called for unambiguous identification of all interventional clinical trials. This resolution led to the establishment of the ‘World Health Organization (WHO) International Clinical Trials Registry Platform’. It collates information on trials that have been notified in a network of clinical trial registries.

According to W.H.O, “The registration of all interventional trials is a scientific, ethical and moral responsibility”.

In the latest version of the Declaration of Helsinki, it reiterates, “Every research study involving human subjects must be registered in a publicly accessible database before recruitment of the first subject.”

It unambiguously states, “Researchers have a duty to make publicly available the results of their research …. Negative and inconclusive as well as positive results must be published or otherwise made publicly available”.

Understandably, W.H.O statement underscores, “There is an ethical imperative to report the results of all clinical trials, including those of unreported trials conducted in the past.”

It is worth mentioning here that on January 1, 2015, by a new policy on publication of clinical data, ‘European Medicines Agency (EMA)’ also decided to proactively publish all clinical reports submitted as part of marketing-authorization applications for human medicines, by the by pharmaceutical companies.

Big Pharma's serious apprehensions on greater Public transparency:  

Before finalization of the above policy, EMA sought comments on its draft from various state holders. On September 5, 2013, in its remarks on the draft, ‘The European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations, EFPIA’ expressed its apprehension about the public health safety oriented proactive move by the EMA as follows:

“We are worried by a move towards greater transparency of clinical trials data that appears to be putting transparency – at whatever cost – ahead of public health interests. Our detailed response to the EMA draft policy speaks to this concern. While EFPIA values other voices and opinion in the conversation surrounding clinical trials data, we believe there are better alternatives than what the EMA is presenting.” 

This is of course understandable. That said, it also gives satisfaction to note that EMA did not wilt under any pressure on this score, whatever the anecdotal might of the external force be. 

Gross non-compliance, endangering patients health safety:

Although, the standards and requirements of “Public Disclosure of Clinical Trial Results” have been well specified now, and even in most of the Big Pharma websites one can find disclosure norms of clinical trial data, their overall compliance on the ground, is still grossly inadequate, endangering patients’ health safety.

An article published in the BMJ Open on November 12, 2015 titled, “Clinical trial registration, reporting, publication and FDAAA compliance: a cross-sectional analysis and ranking of new drugs approved by the FDA in 2012”, well captured the magnitude of this issue. 

Nevertheless, the study analyzed just a subset of drugs approved in a single year, 2012. The researchers only examined whether clinical trials were registered and reported, not what that data suggested about how the drugs worked.

The paper reported the results as follows:

“In 2012, the US FDA approved 39 novel new medicines, known as NMEs, and 35 novel drugs. Combining these lists, the FDA approved a total of 48 new drug entities, 15 of which were sponsored by 10 large pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies with market capitalizations valued over US$19 billion. A total of 342 trials were conducted to gain regulatory approval of the 15 drugs, 24 of which were excluded from our analysis, leaving 318 trials involving 99 599 participants relevant to our study, a median of 17 trials per drug.”

Based on the findings, the authors concluded asunder:

“Trial disclosures for new drugs remain below legal and ethical standards, with wide variation in practices among drugs and their sponsors. Best practices are emerging. 2 of our 10 reviewed companies disclosed all trials and complied with legal disclosure requirements for their 2012 approved drugs. Ranking new drugs on transparency criteria may improve compliance with legal and ethical standards and the quality of medical knowledge.”

Simultaneously, The Washington Post in an article of November 12, 2015, titled, “How pharma keeps a trove of drug trials out of public view”, summarized this report by highlighting to the general public that one third of the clinical trial results that US FDA reviewed to approve drugs made by large pharmaceutical companies in 2012, were never publicly reported. 

Unethical practices skewing medical science:

On July 25, 2015, ‘The Economist’ published an article titled, “Spilling the beans’. It highlighted again that the failure to publish the results of all clinical trials is skewing medical science. 

This article also brought to the public attention that half of the clinical trial results are never published over several decades. It broadened the discourse with the observation that this specific unwanted practice, distorts perceptions of the efficacy of not just drugs, but devices and even surgical procedures too, in a well planned and a systematic manner. What is most important to note is, it has seriously compromised with patients’ health interest, across the world. 

It keeps on happening, as there are no firm obligations on the part of drug companies for making public disclosure of all such data, both for and against, though all these data are required to be filed with the regulatory authorities. Hence, the overall assessment of the drugs, weighing all pros and cons, is just not possible for any outside expert agency.

For granting necessary marketing approval, the designated authorities, at least theoretically, ensure that the drugs are reasonably safe, and have, at least, ‘some beneficial effects’. However, the prescribing doctors would continue to remain ignorant of the untold facts, the article states. 

According to ‘The Economist’, although in the United States the relevant laws were modified, way back in 2007, to address this issue, it still remains as a theory, the actual practices in this regard are mostly not so.

Despite vindication no tangible outcome yet:

As I said earlier, this fact got vindicated through extensive research by the ‘BMJ Online’ article and many other contemporary medical publications. 

For example, the evidence released earlier on  April 10,  2014 by the Cochrane Collaboration of London, UK, also shows that a large part of negative data generated from the clinical trials of various drugs were not disclosed to the public. 

Again, like Vioxx, though the US FDA was aware of all such data, for a well known drug Tamiflu, unfortunately the prescribing doctors were not. As a result, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which doesn’t have the same access to unpublished data as the regulators, recommended this medicine not being able to evaluate it holistically. 

However, as the findings from the unpublished clinical trials eventually surfaced, CDC expressed serious apprehension on the overall efficacy of Tamiflu, quite contrary to the assessment of the concerned big pharma player.

Hence, despite quite a large number of vindications by the experts, no tangible outcome has been noticed on this pressing issue, just yet.                                                               

Conclusion:

Based on all this discussion, the moot question that springs up: Why do the doctors still prescribe such drugs, even after being aware of the full facts?

In this regard, an article titled, “Big Pharma Plays Hide-The-Ball with Data”, published in the Newsweek on November 13, 2014 raised a very valid question. 

It commented, even if Tamiflu does nothing, and there is just a slight chance of life-threatening side effects, why was it approved by the US FDA, in the first place?

Even more intriguing is: Why do the doctors continue prescribing these, especially after the Cochrane Collaboration took the Tamiflu’s maker, Roche, to task about many of its claims, in April 2014.

Incidentally, the Cochrane Collaboration is widely regarded as one of the most rigorous reviewers of health science data. It takes results of multiple trials, looks for faults and draws conclusions. It doesn’t accept funding from businesses with a stake in its findings.

The answer to this question may perhaps be too obvious to merit any elaborate discussion here. 

Be that as it may, this curious conundrum of ‘New Drug Approval’ with ‘Partial Public Disclosure of Clinical Trial Data’ needs to effectively addressed, without further delay. If not, patients’ health interest would continue to get seriously compromised with the continuation of prevailing laxity in its implementation process by the drug regulators.

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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