Last week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Health Subcommittee held a hearing on drug safety.  A quick report: Chairman Waxman’s opening comments indicated that the committee was eager to hear about FDA’s implementation of the 2007 FDA Amendments Act, giving FDA the authority to require manufacturers to implement “Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategies” or “REMS.”

FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein indicated that using this REMS authority is “a work in progress” and acknowledged a “lack of clarity” in certain provisions of the law with respect to REMS. FDA recognizes that designing and implementing the most comprehensive REMS requires a careful balancing of the need to adequately manage risks and also to maintain patient access to important medications. In the design of REMS with elements to ensure safe use (the most comprehensive REMS programs), FDA is mindful, he said, that the elements to ensure safe use must not be unduly burdensome on patient access to the drug, and be designed to be compatible with established distribution, procurement, and dispensing systems for drugs.

If FDA determines that a REMS is necessary to ensure that the benefits of a drug continue to outweigh the risks of the drug, FDA can require manufacturers to have a REMS in place when a drug comes on the market, or implement one later if FDA becomes aware of new safety data. Most of the REMS with elements to ensure safe use include educating prescribers about the risks and appropriate use of the drug as a condition of certification or enrollment in the REMS program. Some programs require the prescriber to monitor the patient immediately following drug administration and for a period of time afterwards.

The FDA official also gave a brief update on the Sentinel Initiative. FDAAA requires the HHS Secretary to develop methods to obtain access to disparate data sources and to establish a post-market risk identification and analysis system to link and analyze health care data from multiple sources. On May 22, 2008, FDA officially launched the Sentinel Initiative with the ultimate goal of creating and implementing the Sentinel System—a national, integrated, electronic system for monitoring medical product safety. The Sentinel System, testified the Commissioner, once up and running, will enable FDA to actively gather information about the post-market safety and performance of its regulated products—a significant change from the current, primarily passive safety surveillance systems. The law sets a goal of access to data from 25 million patients by July 1, 2010, and 100 million patients by July 1, 2012.

FDA has gathered public input on issues related to the creation and development of Sentinel, held numerous meetings and a public workshop, and established a working group consisting of representatives of numerous federal agencies to share information and discuss issues related to ongoing efforts that are complementary to Sentinel. FDA has awarded key contracts for a pilot project to gather information that will be essential to fully implementing the Sentinel System. As we posted about before, there is still work to be done to address significant issues with this plan.

One risk is that plaintiffs’ attorneys will find a way to misuse the system, to “find” spurious associations between drugs and effects, to assert a causal link based on the “government approved, government sanctioned” database program, and to blame the drug companies for not having seen that same link sooner. Fundamentally, the system creates a corresponding need to improve the ability to determine as quickly as possible which findings reflect a genuine and health risk. That determination may take epidemiological investigations or clinical trials before any conclusion about whether a product actually caused an event. And the new system doesn’t change the reality that sometimes patients suffer adverse events after receiving drugs because they are sick, not because the drug has any issues. Plaintiffs have no incentive to place the new product information uncovered in a context of the continuing benefits of the product for many patients, the lack of certainty in the findings, the limitations of the data, etc.