FDA moving to expand access to experimental drugs

The FDA is taking steps to expand patients’ access to drugs that have not yet been approved for marketing, encouraging manufacturers to exclude fewer people from clinical trials and to publicize their policies about accessing drugs outside of clinical trials, according to a report from Government Accountability Office (GAO Report, GAO-19-630, September 9, 2019).

Clinical trials

Clinical trials often exclude patients by geography, age, or medical condition, and many stakeholders believe that the eligibility criteria are too narrow and exclude patients who are likely to be treated once a drug is approved, according to the GAO. Two recent laws have encouraged expanded access to pre-approved, or “investigational” drugs, the Federal Right to Try Act of 2018, which allows terminally ill patients and their doctors to request access to drugs without an FDA review process, and the FDA Reauthorization Act of 2017, which required the FDA to discuss and report on clinical trial inclusion and exclusion, and requires the GAO to report FDA’s actions to expand access to investigational drugs.

FDA efforts

The FDA has made efforts to make sure that historically excluded classes of people, like children, pregnant women, or patients with liver disease, can gain access to “investigational” drugs that have not been approved for marketing. The agency has met with stakeholders, reported on its meetings, and issued guidance on cancer drugs and on clinical trials more generally.

FDA issued four new draft guidance documents and one finalized guidance document in March 2019, aimed at expanding eligibility for cancer drug trials. Collectively, the guidance recommends that manufacturers attempt to include certain patient populations that have typically been excluded from participation, including children and adolescents; patients with HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C virus; patients with brain cancer; and patients with kidney, heart, or liver diseases. Rather than excluding these patients outright, FDA’s new guidance recommends ways to safely include them in trials, such as allowing testing on HIV-positive patients if they have not had an AIDS-defining infection within the past 12 months.

The FDA has more recently issued draft guidance that goes beyond cancer trials, recommending in June that manufacturers examine whether exclusion criteria are necessary to ensure safety or to achieve the study’s objectives, and avoid any unnecessary restrictions to a study’s population.

Despite the FDA’s efforts, drug manufacturers have not generally moved to expand eligibility for clinical trials. Only two out of ten surveyed by the GAO indicated that they had broadened their clinical trial eligibility criteria or intended to do so, while other drug manufacturers said that they had tried other ways to expand access to trials, such as reimbursing travel and hotel costs, or taking advantage of decentralized trials that took place in retail health clinics and patients’ homes, according to the report.

Beyond clinical trials, patients can also request access to investigative drugs through the FDA’s expanded access program or the federal Right to Try Act, and the FDA is taking steps to raise awareness about those programs. While the FDA has tried to use both programs to increase access to investigative drugs, it can only go so far, since neither program compels drug makers to provide access outside of a clinical trial.

The GAO received mixed feedback on the FDA’s program. Some physician and patient advocacy groups criticized it as too complex and burdensome, while others pointed out that the FDA approves most requests—99 percent in 2017—and that manufacturer’s approval is a bigger factor in preventing patient access.

The FDA has tried to simplify and improve the expanded access process, simplifying forms and enlisting an outside partner to help physicians and patients find drug manufacturers’ expanded access policies, according to the report. The FDA has also started a pilot program to assist oncologists with requests for investigative drugs, and created a streamlined process for institutional review board approval, both of which have been well-received by stakeholders.

The newer Right to Try Act also received mixed reviews in the GAO’s study, with some physicians and medical ethicists questioning whether the program, which eliminates FDA review, could compromise patient safety without solving the more common obstacle to improving access, which is manufacturers’ cooperation.

Drug manufacturers remain skittish about the FDA’s handling of adverse events that occur under the FDA’s expanded access program, despite recent guidance saying that such events have not prevented FDA from approving any drug. Two out of ten drug manufacturers said that recent the FDA guidance did not quell their concerns, and four in ten said that manufacturers’ concerns about the issue “may never be fully resolved.” FDA officials, for their part, told the GAO that data from the expanded access program has been commonly used to support drug approvals, and only very rarely has led to a clinical hold.

The GAO also tracked drug makers’ efforts to communicate with patients about access to investigative drugs, finding that 23 of 29 manufacturers surveyed communicated their position to potential patients. Nineteen said they would consider requests for investigational drugs outside of clinical trials, while four said they would not consider requests, with two citing safety concerns. Most of the manufacturers willing to accept requests included an estimated time frame for responses, and five mentioned specific drugs for which they would consider requests.

Webinar tackles the tribulations of investigator initiated trials

Investigators should be careful to distinguish between interventional and observational studies when developing investigator initiated trials (IITs) because the distinction can effect billing strategies and budget, according a Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA) webinar, presented by Liz Christianson and David Russell of PFS Clinical. The webinar addressed key areas of focus for developing IITs, including protocol development, industry funding, and regulatory requirements.

IITs

Christianson noted there has been a remarkable renewed interest in IITs in the last two years, due largely due to industry sponsors realizing that IIT relationships are symbiotic. However, despite the renewed focus, IITs present challenges. In some cases, challenges arise from the fact that 85 percent of investigators have participated in only one clinical trial in their careers.

Protocols

Protocol development is important, particularly with respect to the articulation of an IIT as interventional or observational. Christianson noted that from reading the protocol it should be obvious whether an IIT is interventional or observational because the distinction can have significant downstream effects on budgets and billing. Christianson defined observational studies as trials where the investigator makes no intervention and allocates treatment based upon clinical decisions. She distinguished this from interventional studies, where participants are assigned to receive one or more interventions (or no intervention) so researchers can evaluate the effects of the interventions on health outcomes.

Billing

Because Medicare uses set criteria for reimbursement of trials, the objective language can be crucial to reimbursement. In observational studies, study actions should not be able to be linked to specific claims codes. Conversely, in an interventional study, actions should be linked to a specific billing code. Thus, the objective language in a study should clearly indicate what the PI’s true intent is—to treat with routine care, then collect patient data (observational) or to assign patients to specific treatment groups (interventional).

Registration

Russell discussed the registration of trials on ClinicalTrials.gov. All applicable clinical trials must be registered on the website in order to receive a unique National Clinical Trial (NCT) number, which is required on all CMS claims. Russell also covered specific data elements and registration information required by the September 21, 2016, Final rule for clinical trials (81 FR 64982). Russell reminded responsible parties that trials must be registered no later than 21 days after enrollment of the first participant and, at minimum, the applicable clinical trial must be updated every 12 months. Summary results (including adverse even information), must be submitted not later than one year after a trial’s primary completion date.