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Posts Tagged ‘FDA

Science Policy Around the Web – October 17, 2017

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By: Charles Wright, Ph.D.

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Source: Public Domain Pictures

Gene Therapy

FDA experts offer a unanimous endorsement for pioneering gene therapy for blindness

Gene therapy, an approach long hailed for its potential to cure intractable genetic diseases, finally has some successes in getting regulatory approval.  Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first-ever gene therapy treatment for a fatal brain disease.

Last week, another gene therapy approach—this time for a blinding disease that strikes in early-to-late childhood—also received endorsement by a 16-0 vote from the FDA’s Cellular, Tissue and Gene Therapies Advisory Committee. The vote provides encouragement for patients suffering from Leber congenital amaurosis, type 2 (LCA2), which Voretigene neparvovec (Luxterna) from Spark Therapeutics aims to treat. However formal regulatory approval is still pending . Leber congenital amaurosis, although rare with an estimated prevalence of only 1:50,000 – 1:100,000, devastates vision at an early age. Newborns may show visual impairment immediately after birth, and most LCA patients lose most of their vision by the time they reach 20-30 years of age. Voretigene neparvovec aims to treat patients with mutations in the RPE65 gene, characteristic of LCA2, through gene therapy.

The recent string of successes in gene therapy comes years after the field struggled to rebuild itself after tragedy.  In 1999, the death of a participant in a trial to treat a rare metabolic disorder forced FDA to strengthen its oversight of gene therapy trials. With the first formal FDA approval for a gene therapy awarded just months ago, the recent approvals for other treatments since then suggests gene therapy may have reached a turning point.  In the future, gene therapy may be common for a variety of diseases.

If voretigene neparvovec receives FDA approval, it will be the first gene therapy treatment for a blinding disease.

(John Carroll, Science)

The Scientific Workforce

Why I’m pushing for a postdoc union

Postdoctoral fellows face a bevy of obstacles that threaten to derail even the most brilliant and committed young scientists from a research career.  Many postdocs unfortunately become intimately familiar with them in the lab; funding, publications, and tenure-track positions elude trainees and can keep postdocs from establishing themselves as independent researchers for years.  The harsh reality of the postdoc lifestyle often causes problems outside the lab as well.  Low pay, long working hours, and relationship strain all take their toll.

In response to these issues, some postdocs try to form unions to force academia to respond.  The subject of postdoc unions often pits researchers against university administrators, and the legal standing of postdoc unionization remains in flux.  Universities may claim unionization ultimately harms postdoc employment, as supervisors may write less than glowing recommendation letters for post-docs who missed work due to labor disputes. Nevertheless many postdocs feel unions may help provide a platform for receiving the benefits they need.

Brian Weitzner at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle proposes collective bargaining rights for postdocs employed at UW campuses across the state.  In the past several months, while he and other postdocs prepare for a vote on whether to unionize, he talked with UW postdocs who share his concerns.  Fair pay, health insurance, and protection for victims of sexual harassment in the laboratory all motivate him to seek the establishment of a formal avenue with universities for resolving these and other issues.

UW postdocs are working with a local chapter of United Automobile Workers to navigate the steps needed to form a union. Their petition to vote is currently being reviewed by the Washington State Public Employment Relations Commission.

(Brian D. Weitzner, Science Careers)

Genomics

The rise and fall and rise again of 23andMe

Four years ago, the DNA-testing firm, 23andMe, teetered on the edge of oblivion.  Then, in 2015, 23andMe made the news again when it announced regulatory approval to sell a test for a rare genetic disease directly to the public.  Now, the company offers testing for 10 genetic diseases to consumers and continues to supply genomics data to collaborators to aid in drug development.

In 2007, 23andMe first gained prominence with its home-delivered kit that consumers could use to learn more about their genome.  After the company analyzed the data, costumers would receive information about their ancestry, predisposition to disease, and other miscellaneous facts such as whether they carried DNA variants that impacted their earwax consistency or urine smell after eating asparagus.  23andMe would also pool customers’ de-identified data together to analyze and sell to other pharmaceutical companies or research collaborators.

As 23andMe grew in popularity, critics became concerned that consumers were being overly impressed by advertisements indicating they could use their own genetic information to better inform personal health decisions even though many links between the DNA sequence variations reported by the test and disease remain dubious.  Alarmed by the possibility patients could make decisions about their health on information that had not been fully validated, FDA warned 23andMe it would need to provide evidence of the accuracy of the tests and ability of consumers to understand the results to continue marketing their kit as a health tool.  23andMe ignored the FDA’s warnings until the regulatory agency finally issued a cease-and-desist letter.

Since then, 23andMe decided to work with the FDA to approve the genetic tests included in its kit. The company can still only sell genetic tests directly to customers for a small number of diseases but is working with the FDA to expand its offerings to the general public.  In the meantime, the company still works with research collaborators to find new disease-relevant DNA variations, like those possibly involved in clinical depression.

Ultimately, 23andMe hopes its business model will lead to new therapies for disease.

(Erika Check Hayden, Nature)

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October 17, 2017 at 5:10 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – October 10, 2017

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By: Kseniya Golovnina, PhD.

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Gene Therapy

In a First, Gene Therapy Halts a Fatal Brain Disease

 The first historic gene therapy approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in August 2017 opened a new era for the treatment of serious and life-threatening diseases. One month later Bluebird Bio announced the successful start of Lenti-D therapy in the clinical trial and gave a flutter of hope to cure cerebral adrenoleukodystrophy (CALD) also known as Lorenzo’s Oil.

Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a rare disorder that affects one in 21,000 male births worldwide, is caused by mutations in the ABCD1 gene that lead to the subsequent accumulation of very long chain fatty acids in tissues, including the myelin of the central nervous system. The most severe form of ALD, known as cerebral ALD (CALD), involves the progressive destruction of the protective sheath of the nerve cells in the brain that are responsible for thinking and muscle control. This leads to deafness, blindness, seizures, loss of muscle control and dementia, resulting in permanent disability or death. Symptoms of CALD progress rapidly if untreated and the only current treatment is stem cell transplantation.

Gene therapy is a technique for correcting defective genes responsible for disease development.  It utilizes viruses to deliver unmutated copies of the genes, such as the ABCD1 gene, to the cells of the patient’s body. First, blood from the patient is collected by apheresis, depleting immune response T cells and enriching progenitors of all blood cells (hematopoietic stem cells, HTS). The HTS cells are then infected with a virus carrying a functional copy of the gene, before returning the cells to the body.

Bluebird Bio is now pursuing Lenti-D therapy which uses lentiviruses to deliver a functional copy of the ABCD1 gene to patients with ALD. Results published in the New England Journal of Medicine, reported that 15 out of 17 patients (88%) were free from major functional disabilities two years after the hematopoietic stem-cell gene therapy. These results demonstrate the therapy’s efficacy over the 76% benchmark established by radiotherapy-free survival at 24 months. Bluebird’s Chief Medical Officer David Davidson expressed excitement about the patients’ progress. He announced that the first four patients treated in the expansion cohort are also doing well, as measured by their amount of the functional ABCD1 gene.

(Gina Kolata, The New York Times)

Drug pricing

FDA acts to encourage generic competition for complex drugs

What kind of feelings do you have when pharmaceutical companies announce their prices for upcoming exciting gene therapies and other innovative, life-changing bio pharmaceuticals? Positive news about development and success of first-of-their-kind drugs can be undermined by anxieties that patients will not be able to afford them. High drug prices can prevent accessibility of new therapies vital for many patients, and market analysts predict rapid inflation in healthcare spending over the next few years due to the aging US population.

The FDA is conscious of the stress expensive drugs put on both patients and the entire healthcare system. Under the leadership of current Commissioner, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, one of key goals of the the FDA is to bring more competition from generics to help drive prices down. On October 2, 2017 the agency prepared draft guidance specifically aimed at copycats of complex therapies and therefore trying to clear the way for generic drug makers to the market.

Gottlieb wrote in his blog post that the agency is looking for more efficient regulatory pathways with robust reviews and communication with pharmaceutical companies for abbreviated new drugs applications (ANDAs). He highlighted that “early and better meetings between FDA and sponsors can improve development timelines. The agency acknowledged that the complexity of the approval process may be discouraging to generic drug makers. The new guidance aims to clarify these complexities by outlining how genetic makers can prove “sameness” by showing that there is no difference in response to generic drug compared with the original. This is the second update for ANDAs process and Dr. Gottlieb assured that FDA will continue to progress in this reformation.

(Linda A. Johnson, The Associated Press)

 

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October 10, 2017 at 10:11 pm

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Science Policy Around the Web – September 29, 2017

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By: Allison Dennis, B.S.

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Hospital Budgets

Another health care deadline looms: Payments to safety net hospitals due to expire

On October 1, 2017, America’s healthcare safety net will face its first in a series of annual funding cuts to Disproportionate Share Hospitals payments scheduled by Obamacare. This safety net is held together by hospitals that shoulder the responsibility of serving the uninsured, Medicaid, and economically-vulnerable patients, often at a financial loss. The American Hospital Association reports that hospitals are only reimbursed 88 cents for every dollar they spend on Medicaid patients. Further insufficiencies arise when hospitals adhere to The Emergency Medical and Treatment Labor Act of 1986, which mandates the treatment of patients seeking emergency services regardless of their ability to pay. Highly profitable hospitals that attend communities where these patients represent a marginal burden can absorb the cost through lost profits. However, hospitals serving communities where these patients pose an undue burden are supported by subsidies from federally-funded, state-matched, Disproportionate Share Hospitals payments. The scheduled cut for this year would reduce the $21 billion allocated state-by-state in fiscal year 2017 by a total of $3.6 billion, $2 billion from federal contributions combined with $1.6 billion from state contributions.

Obamacare expanded Medicaid to cover individuals up to 138% of the Federal Poverty Level, set at $33,948 for a four-person household and $16,642 for an individual, reducing national levels of uncompensated care. Further, the law provided opportunities for individuals to purchase insurance coverage through HealthCare.gov, while implementing penalties for those who chose to forgo coverage. Lawmakers included a schedule for reducing Disproportionate Share Hospital Payments on the assumption that the proposed changes in the healthcare system would be sufficient to reduce the financial burden on safety net hospitals, lessening the need for federal and state assistance.

The rate of uninsured Americans did fall to 8.8% in 2016, compared with 16.3% in 2010. However the extent to which this change has improved revenues for safety net hospitals remains unclear. Further occluding the readiness of hospitals to cope with the budget cut are the unique challenges each may face. The agreement to extend discussions of the 2018 fiscal year budget past the October 1 deadline may give lawmakers the last minute chance to forgo the cuts for yet another year.

(Max Blau, STATnews)

Pharmaceutical Regulation

You’ve heard about precision medicine. Now get ready for precision drug ads

In 2016, $5.7 billion, about $17.5 per person, was spent by pharmaceutical companies on traditional advertising. But how many of those ads were seen by the people who need them? Their recent interest in the online giants Facebook and Pandora, suggests that pharmaceutical companies are looking to enter the new age of advertising, targeted ads. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 prevents insurance companies and healthcare providers from sharing an individual’s health information, especially when it may be used for marketing purposes. However, being privy to a person’s private interactions with their electronic devices may be far more revealing about a user’s health than conversations with their doctor.

The FDA has been tasked with regulating pharmaceutical advertising on the internet. However, applying the rules surrounding pharmaceutical adverting in the age of 140 character limits and browser history mining will take some reimagining. So far, the FDA’s approach to limiting inappropriate advertising has been to call it when they see it. In 2015, the FDA famously issued a warning letter regarding an Instagram post made by Kim Kardashian, seemingly promoting a prescription-only anti-nausea pill. Nevertheless, in 2017, Pfizer successfully experimented using geographical information to target ads to online consumers without any FDA upset.

This comes as a growing field of research is investigating the observation that the words used to describe a particular disease may influence the treatment options a patient gravitates towards. Parents who were told their child had “pinkeye” instead of an “eye infection” were more likely to give their child a course of antibiotics, even when doctors stated the treatment was likely ineffective. Altering the language appearing in targeted ads on platforms like facebook may further provide means for social experimentation, adding another layer of concern for the FDA.

(Rebecca Robbins, STATnews)

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September 29, 2017 at 7:40 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – July 21, 2017

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By: Rachel F Smallwood, PhD

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Cancer

Engineered Cell Therapy for Cancer Gets Thumbs Up from FDA Advisers

A panel of advisers has recommended that the FDA approve chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) therapy for treatment of acute B-cell lymphoblastomic leukemia. The committee unanimously agreed that the risk to benefit ratio was favorable enough to proceed with approval of the drug (tisagenlecleucel), manufactured by Novartis. CAR-T therapy utilizes a patient’s own immune cells to find and attack cancer cells. In a recent trial in humans, 82.5% of patients went into remission following treatment with the drug; there have also been promising results from its use in glioblastoma treatment. The treatment would specifically be for pediatric and young adult patients who did not respond well to initial treatments or who relapsed from being in remission.

Despite have strong positive effects, there are potential risks posed by CAR-T therapy. In the study mentioned above, almost half of the patients experienced an inflammatory reaction called cytokine release syndrome. Although all of those cases were treatable, the condition can be life-threatening. Novartis also reported neurological problems. Other CAR-T trials have had several deaths due to brain swelling, but those were in adult populations and were some differences in the therapies.

The FDA often does take the recommendations of its advisers, but there is much to consider in this decision. It would essentially be approving a living drug that is individualized to each patient; the patients’ own blood cells are sent to a manufacturing center, where they are genetically engineered to target leukemia cells. The cell population is then allowed to proliferate, and the entire process takes around twenty-two days. This process presents a quality assurance and control problem to the FDA. However, the target population typically has a poor prognosis and very few options, so the panel considers the potential for increased survival and quality of life to be worth the risks. (Heidi Ledford, Nature News)

Stem-Cell Therapy

Unapproved Stem-Cell Treatments Touted on Federal Database Clinicaltrials.Gov

ClinicalTrials.gov is an online database, curated by the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health, that logs clinical studies occurring around the country and allows them to be searched by patients, family members, healthcare providers, and researchers. The information on the site is provided by the researchers or sponsors of the individual studies themselves. It allows patients and healthy people to become aware of opportunities to participate in medical research. These studies involve a wide range of treatments, including drugs, devices, behavioral therapies, and procedures.

A recent study found that the database is being abused by clinics advertising for stem cell trials. These trials target individuals looking for treatment for a variety of conditions, and all of them charge for participation. There are very few FDA-approved stem cell therapies, and most clinics that utilize stem cell therapies assert that they do not need FDA approval since they are practicing medicine and do not substantially alter the stem cells (although that is disputed).  Since the researchers themselves indicate in the database whether they need FDA approval, there is little oversight to ensure these studies are correctly representing the risks and benefits of their treatment.

Although a disclaimer was added this spring that informs visitors that the presence of a trial in the database does not indicate government endorsement of it, many people do not realize that they could potentially be participating in a for-profit procedure that does not have the proper oversight to ensure patient safety. In one such case, three women were blinded who paid to receive stem cell therapy for macular degeneration. Most legitimate research studies will not require payment for participation, although travel and lodging costs associated with participation may be incurred.

While many patients may receive treatment at one of these clinics without an adverse event or even with a positive result, critics of these types of clinics are calling for regulation of entries into the ClinicalTrials.gov system. They assert that a federal resource for medical research should not be used to advertise for for-profit clinics that are utilizing therapies that have not been studied or reviewed for safety and efficacy. (Laurie McGinley, Washington Post)

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July 21, 2017 at 10:08 am

The Economic Impact of Biosimilars on Healthcare

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By: Devika Kapuria, MD

          Biologic drugs, also defined as large molecules, are an ever-increasing source of healthcare costs in the US. In contrast to small, chemically manufactured molecules, classic active substances that make up 90 percent of the drugs on the market today, biologics are therapeutic proteins that undergo production through biotechnological processes, some of which may require over 1000 steps. The average daily cost of a biologic in the US is $45 when compared with a chemical drug that costs only $2. Though expensive, their advent has significantly changed disease management and improved outcomes for patients with chronic diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis and various forms of cancer. Between 2015-2016, biologics accounted for 20% of the global health market, and they are predicted to increase to almost 30% by 2020. Worldwide revenue from biologic drugs quadrupled from US $47 billion in 2002 to over US $200 billion in 2013.

The United States’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has defined a biosimilar as a biologic product that is highly similar to the reference product, notwithstanding minor differences in clinically-inactive components, and for which there are no clinically meaningful differences between the biologic product and the innovator product in terms of safety, purity and efficacy. For example, CT-P13 (Inflectra) is a biosimilar to infliximab (chimeric monoclonal antibody against TNF-α) that has recently obtained approval from the FDA for use of treatment of inflammatory bowel disease. CT-P13 has similar but slightly different pharmacokinetics and efficacy compared to infliximab. With many biologics going off patent, the biosimilar industry has expanded greatly. In the last two years alone, the FDA approved 4 biosimilar medications: Zarxio (filgrastim-sndz), Inflectra (infliximab-dyyb), Erelzi (etanercept-szzs) and Amjevita (adalimumab-atto).

Unlike generic versions of chemical drugs (small molecules that are significantly cheaper than their branded counterparts), the price difference between a biosimilar and the original biologic is not huge. This is due to several reasons. First, the development time and cost for biosimilars is much more than for generic medications. It takes 8-10 years and several hundred million dollars for the development of a biosimilar compared to around 5 years and $1-$5 million for the generic version of a small molecule drug. With only single entrants per category in the US, biosimilars are priced 15-20% lower than their brand name rivals, which, though cheaper, still amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. By the end of 2016, the estimated global sales from biosimilars amounted to US $2.6 billion, and nearly $4 billion by 2019. Estimates for the cost savings of biosimilars for the US market are variable; the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the BPCI (Biologics Price Competition and Innovation) Act of 2009 would reduce expenditures on biologics by $25 billion by 2018. Another analysis from the Rand Corporation estimated that biosimilars would result in a $44.2 billion reduction in biologic spending between 2014 and 2024.

In the United States, a regulatory approval pathway for biosimilars was not established till the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. However, biosimilars have been used in Europe for over a decade, and this has led to the development of strategies for quicker adaptation, including changes in manufacturing, scaling up production and adapting to local healthcare policies. These changes have led to a competitive performance of biosimilars in the European market, with first generation biosimilars taking up between 50-80% of the market across 5 European countries, with an expected cost savings of $15 to$44 billion by 2020. One example that demonstrates a significant discount involves the marketing of Remsima, a biosimilar of Remicade (infliximab). In Norway, an aggressive approach towards marketing of Remsima was adopted with a 69% discount in comparison to the reference product. After two years, Remsima has garnered 92.9% of the market share in the country.

The shift to biosimilars may be challenging for both physicians and patients. While safety concerns related to biosimilars have been alleviated with post marketing studies from Europe, there still remains a significant lack of awareness about biosimilars amongst healthcare providers, especially about prescribing and administering them. Patient acceptance remains an important aspect as well, with several patients loyal to the reference brand who may not have the same level of confidence in the biosimilar. Also, like with generics, patients may believe that biosimilars are, in some way, inferior to the reference product. Increased reporting of post marketing studies and pharmacovigilance can play a role in alleviating some of these concerns.

In 2015, the FDA approved the first biosimilar in the US, after which, it has published a series of guidelines for biosimilar approval, under the BPCA act, including demonstrating biosimilarity and interchangeability with the reference product. This includes a total of 3 final guideline documents and 5 draft guidance documents. Starting in September 2017, the World Health Organization will accept applications for prequalification into their Essential Medication list for biosimilar versions of rituximab and trastuzumab, for the treatment of cancer. This program ensures that medications purchased by international agencies like the UNICEF meet standards for quality, safety and efficacy. Hopefully, this will increase competition in the biosimilar market to reduce price and increase access to medications in low-income countries.

Both human and economic factors need to be considered in this rapidly growing field. Increasing awareness among prescribers and patients about the safety and efficacy of biosimilars as well as improving regulatory aspects are essential for the widespread adaptation of biosimilars.

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July 19, 2017 at 10:42 am

Science Policy Around the Web – July 7, 2017

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By: Leopold Kong, PhD

Food Policy

Food and Microbiota in the FDA Regulatory Framework

More and more probiotic food products, or microbiota-directed foods, claiming to “improve” the body’s microbiota have been hitting the shelves, with sales valuing over US$700 million in the US alone and US$36.6 billion globally this past year. However, there is little framework regulating their ingredients or guaranteeing the scientific accuracy of their health claims that has resulted in costly legal action. For example, in September 2009, Dannon settled a US$35 million consumer class action suit challenging the claimed health benefits in their ads. A similar class action suit against Procter & Gamble’s Align probiotic has been certified and set for Oct. 16, 2017. A paper recently published in the journal Science calls for greater clarity in policy regulating probiotic products. Importantly, the authors urge that probiotics should be clearly classified as a dietary supplement, a medical food, or a drug. If classified as a dietary supplement, probiotics can make claims on nutrient content and effect on health, but not on treatment, prevention or diagnosis of disease. If classified as a medical food, probiotics must contain ingredients that aid in the management of a disease or condition, with “distinctive nutritional requirements”, that is scientifically recognized. Finally, if classified as a drug, probiotics will require clinical trials to prove its medical claims. An alternative, and perhaps cheaper, way forward is to regulate probiotics as a kind of over-the counter medical food, requiring testing only for their active ingredients that can be used in a variety of products. (Green et al., Science)

Antibiotic Resistance

Untreatable Gonorrhoea on the Rise Worldwide

Over 78 million people are infected with gonorrhea each year, a sexually transmitted disease that has traditionally been treated effectively with anti-microbials. However, recently published data from 77 countries show that antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is getting more pervasive and harder to cure. “The bacteria that cause gonorrhea are particularly smart. Every time we use a new class of antibiotics to treat the infection, the bacteria evolve to resist them,” said Dr. Teodora Wi, Medical Officer, Human Reproduction, at the WHO. The data found widespread resistance to ciprofaxacin, azithromycin, and even to the last-resort treatments, oral cefixime and injectable ceftriaxone. New drugs are under development, including a phase III trial of a new antibiotic, zoliflodacin, launched by the non-governmental organization Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative and Entasis Therapeutics, a biotech company in Waltham, Massachusetts. Better prevention through education on safer sexual behavior and more affordable diagnostics will also be needed moving forward. (Amy Maxmen, Nature News)

Maternal Health

U.S. has the Worst Rate of Maternal Deaths in the Developed World

A recent six-month long investigation by NPR and ProPublica has found that more women in the US are dying of pregnancy related complications than any other developed country. Surprisingly, this rate is increasing only in the US, which stood at ~ 26.4 deaths per 100,000 births in 2015, translating to nearly 65,000 deaths annually.  This is three times worse than for women in Canada, and six times worse than for women in Scandinavian countries. Reasons include older new mothers with more complex medical histories, unplanned pregnancies, which are the case half the time in the US, greater prevalence of C-sections, and the fragmented health system. This is in contrast with progress in preventing infant mortality, which has reached historic levels in the US. Better medical training for maternal emergency and more federal funding for research in this area may improve the situation for American mothers. (Nina Martin and Renee Montagne, NPR)

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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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June 23, 2017 at 11:00 am