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Science Policy Around the Web – June 23, 2017

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By: Saurav Seshadri, PhD

Drug Policy

Trump’s New Policy to Tackle Sky-High Drug Prices Makes Sense — Sort Of

Tackling high prescription drug prices was a repeated promise of the Trump campaign. The Trump administration has now taken its first step towards fulfilling this pledge, outlined in a blog post by Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Scott Gottlieb. The agency will pursue a Drug Competition Action Plan, whose goal will be to eliminate obstacles to the development of cheap generic drugs – particularly those caused by loopholes in existing FDA policies, which are exploited by pharmaceutical companies to extend their patent exclusivity period and maximize profits. An example of such ‘gaming’ the system, cited in the post, is the practice of limiting access to branded products for comparative testing by generic developers. Ultimately, the FDA will work closely with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to address such issues, since directly regulating business practices is outside its mandate.

On its face, the FDA’s effort is a step in the right direction. Availability of generics reduces the cost of medications by over half within the first year, and according to a recent Congressional report, manufacturers state that ‘competition…is the primary driver of generic drug prices’. However, it ignores evidence that the real driver of increased drug spending is new, branded medicines, not overpriced generics. In fact, early indications are that Trump’s policies will favor the pharmaceutical companies that produce such medicines, by reducing regulations and apparently abandoning his promise to enable the government to negotiate drug pricing through Medicare. Overall, these actions signal a commitment to promoting free market mechanisms in the pharmaceutical industry; time will tell whether this approach will actually lead to more affordable drugs. (Julia Belluz, Vox)

Cancer

In a Major Shift, Cancer Drugs go ‘Tissue-Agnostic’

With the landmark approval of Keytruda in May, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) appears to have ushered in a new era of cancer drug development.  So far, cancer treatment and drug evaluation have largely used the tumor’s tissue of origin as a starting point. Keytruda (an immune system enabling drug developed by Merck and approved for melanoma in 2014) marked the first departure from this approach, receiving priority approval to treat any solid tumor containing a mutation in the mismatch repair pathway, regardless of context. Recently released data suggests that another tissue-agnostic cancer therapy is on the way: larotrectinib (a cell growth inhibitor developed by Loxo Oncology) showed high efficacy for any tumor with a certain biomarker (TRK fusion). Several other such drugs, whose indications will be based on tumor genetics rather than location, are in the clinical pipeline.

Although these advances have generated significant excitement in the cancer community, some caveats exist. First, identifying the patients that could benefit from tissue-agnostic treatments will require individual initiative and depend on the cost of screening, particularly when considering markers that are rare for a certain tumor type. A potential solution is suggested by the NCI-MATCH trial, part of the NIH’s Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI) – in it, patients can enroll in one of several parallel clinical trials if a corresponding drug-targeted mutation is found in their tumor’s genome. If these trials prove effective, patients could eventually be regularly matched with a personalized, tissue-agnostic, biologically valid treatment, based on a standardized screen.  Second, researchers caution that tissue-agnostic studies should have a strong scientific rationale and/or breakthrough-level efficacy. Otherwise, such efforts ‘could actually slow drug development if there are differential effects across tumor types by diverting resources from enrolling patients in a predominant population or in the tumor type most likely to respond’.

Despite these concerns, the tissue-agnostic paradigm offers great promise for cancer patients. NIH-funded resources such as The Cancer Genome Atlas could be invaluable to this field moving forward. (Ken Garber, Science)

Scientific Publishing

US Court Grants Elsevier Millions in Damages from Sci-Hub

A New York district court has awarded academic publishing giant Elsevier $15 million in damages from Alexandra Elbakyan, founder of the website Sci-Hub, for copyright infringement. Elbakyan, a 27-year-old neuroscientist turned programmer, started Sci-Hub in 2011 with the goal of ‘remov[ing] all barriers in the way of science’. The site allows users to download research papers that would normally be blocked by a paywall, by obtaining credentials from subscribing institutions and using them to access publisher-run databases like ScienceDirect. Over 60 million papers are posted on Sci-Hub, and users downloaded 28 million articles in 2016.

Elbakyan’s case is reminiscent of Aaron Swartz, another high-profile champion of open access to scientific research. Faced with federal charges related to his hacking of journal archive JSTOR, Swartz tragically committed suicide in 2013. Both Elbakyan and Swartz found publishers’ ability to profit from restricting access to scientific literature, effectively withholding knowledge from anyone outside of a privileged inner circle, as well as the legal protection provided to this system, to be deeply unethical. Their willingness to act upon these convictions has earned each a sizable following in the scientific community.

For their part, publishers claim that fees go towards overhead, and point to significant efforts to expand free and open access programs. While judges have so far been sympathetic, Elsevier’s legal battle has been largely one-sided. Elbakyan has been ignoring rulings requiring her to shut down Sci-Hub since 2015, opting to simply change domains instead, and since she is currently based in Russia and has no American assets, she is unlikely to pay any damages. (Quirin Schiermeier, Nature News)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

June 23, 2017 at 11:00 am

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