In April 26, an FDA advisory committee voted 7-6 that the exon-skipping drug eteplirsen for Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) failed to meet the standards needed for accelerated approval. It was widely assumed that the FDA would tell the drug’s developer, Sarepta Therapeutics, to try again with better data. That, of course, did not happen. In this follow-up, we report on how it eventually did turn out for the drug and for the DMD community.
To the surprise of many, the FDA approved eteplirsen in September with the trade name Exondys 51.
While patients and families applauded the decision, believing their efforts in collaborating with industry and the agency had paid off, critics in the medical and research community questioned whether the drug really worked, and whether the FDA had made the right call. Documents later revealed internal FDA friction, and even though the agency’s boss backed the approval, he also called for a key study supporting the drug to be retracted.
In addition, two recent events — passage of the 21st Century Cures Act, a major health bill meant to spur innovation and speed the delivery of new drugs, and the surprise election of Donald Trump as president — have sparked concerns that the FDA might inch closer to deregulation for the sake of innovation under the new administration.
Perhaps more than in previous White House transitions, confusion and uncertainty cloud the FDA’s future.
Yet while consumer groups express alarm, some clinicians and policy experts believe a dramatic reversal in the FDA’s core mission is unlikely. MedPage Today spoke with key stakeholders to gauge the importance of eteplirsen’s approval: what it means for patients and the future of the FDA’s review process.
In approving eteplirsen, the FDA had overruled its own advisory committee. The seven members voting against approval did not believe Sarepta had shown adequate evidence that eteplirsen triggered production of the protein dystrophin at a level that was “reasonably likely to predict clinical benefit.” (DMD is caused by a genetic deficiency in dystrophin.)
Moreover, several of the FDA’s senior staff members also saw evidence that patient benefit was inadequate, as documents detailing a months-long dispute between those staff members and Janet Woodcock, MD, director of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER), showed. She overruled their conclusions and FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, MD, ultimately sided with Woodcock. Curiously, however, Califf also called for the retraction of a 2013 study that aimed to demonstrate that eteplirsen produces adequate levels of dystrophin, which he called “misleading.”
Insurers also appear to need more convincing that the drug is effective. The investment firm Jefferies found that three of five national payers and eight of 15 regional managed care organizations “denied or restricted coverage for the drug,” according to Gena Wang, PhD, CFA, an analyst for Jefferies. Wang told Endpoints News, a biopharma newsletter, the response was “in line with our expectation of pushback from private payers.”
Unlike private insurers, public payers such as Medicaid do not have the option to omit FDA approved drugs from their formularies.
The ripple effect of the eteplirsen decision could prove damaging to the healthcare system, Diana Zuckerman, PhD, president of the National Center for Health Research, told MedPage Today.“Many drug companies will be submitting applications that they wouldn’t have dreamed of submitting [before].”
Zuckerman said Woodcock’s decision stemmed from sympathy for the patients.
“She approved a drug not realizing that by approving the drug based on evidence that was so obviously inadequate many health insurance companies would just refuse to pay for it.”
Without insurance coverage, families have to pay $300,000 a year for the drug. “The company failed in its responsibility, the FDA failed in its responsibilities, and the patients are paying the price,” Zuckerman said.
If the agency continues to move in this direction, insurers will spend more money to perform their own analyses of product data. Money that could have been better spent on coverage, she added[…]