The approval of new drugs and medical devices is a process fraught with scientific, political, and ethical landmines. Inherent in any such process is an unavoidable conflict between rigorous science and safety on the one side, which tend to slow the process down by requiring large randomized clinical trials that can take years, versus forces that demand faster approval. For example, patients suffering from deadly diseases demand faster approval of drugs that might give them the hope of surviving their disease, or at least of surviving considerably longer. This is a powerful force for reform, as evidenced by HIV/AIDS activism in the 1980s and 1990s that led to the development of fast-track approval mechanisms for drugs for life-threatening conditions, a change whose effects have been mixed. It’s also a powerful force potentially for ill, as I’ve documented in my posts about the understandable but misguided “right-to-try” movement. After all, what politician can say no to a constituency representing desperately ill people who only want a shot at survival? It’s not all desperate patients, however. Also wanting more rapid drug approval are powerful business interests in the form of the pharmaceutical and medical device industries, for whom the time and expense of prolonged clinical trials eat into profits and make some drugs not worth developing from a business standpoint.
In 1962, after Frances O. Kelsey, MD, PhD (who died on Friday at the age of 101) successfully prevented the approval of the drug thalidomide in the US, a drug found to cause serious birth defects, Congress passed the Kefauver-Harris Drug Amendments to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. These amendments required that drug companies not just show safety before their drugs could be FDA-approved, as had been the case prior to the amendments, but also to provide substantial evidence of effectiveness for the product’s intended use. That evidence had to be in the form of adequate and well-controlled clinical trials, which at the time was considered a revolutionary requirement. (Believe it or not, no requirement for high quality clinical trials existed before 1962.) This led to the current system of phase I, II, III, and IV clinical trials in force in the United States today. The amendments also included a requirement for informed consent of study subjects and codified good manufacturing processes, as well as the requirement that adverse events be reported. This has been, with some tweaking over the years, the law of the land regarding how the FDA approves drugs for specific indications
Medicine is a lot more complex now than it was in the 1960s however, and there has been a growing sentiment that the system is, if not broken, at least functioning in a way that is behind the times, a manner that was acceptable and appropriate 40 years ago but is no longer so in this era of genomics, precision medicine (formerly known as “personalized medicine”), and targeted therapies. The new drug approval process, which can take up to a decade and cost a billion dollars, it is argued, is too rigid, cumbersome, and slow for the 21st century. (Why it wasn’t too rigid, cumbersome, and slow in the 20th century, no one seems to say. I guess that “21st century” sounds way cooler.)
Into this ongoing controversy have marched Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), who have sponsored a bill passed by the House of Representatives in a rare display of bipartisanship in July. The bill, H.R.6, is entitled the “21st Century Cures Act“. Given how it passed the House by a vote of 344-77, one would think that it should glide through the Senate easily. Certainly, its sponsors and supporters have mounted a mighty PR effort. That might not be the case, given that in the Senate a single senator can hold up or even kill a bill through a filibuster, and to shut down a filibuster or prevent a threatened filibuster requires 60 votes. Be that as it may, I’m not so much interested in the politics of this bill, which, if it survives the Senate, will almost certainly be significantly amended, but rather what the bill does.