A recent New York Times editorial about the Food and Drug Administration reflects a systematic weakness at the once-venerable Gray Lady: The members of the editorial board often rely on sloganeering and popular wisdom instead of substantive evidence.
The editorial was headlined, "The FDA Is in Trouble. Here's How to Fix It." The agency is in trouble. But it's due to the very kinds of "fixes" the Times recommends.
The FDA is highly bureaucratic and risk averse, leading to a slow and expensive drug approval process—at last count, more than $2.5 billion to bring a new drug to market. Yet the armchair quarterbacks at the Times want to slow it down even more and increase the cost and risks of innovating.
Supposedly, too many drugs are being approved "with too little data on how safe or effective they are," according to the editorial. More specifically, regulators have supposedly made "compromises" by accepting "surrogate evidence" of efficacy.
In fact, there are good reasons that the clinical testing of new drugs can be accomplished with fewer and smaller trials. We are entering the era of precision, or personalized, medicine, the mantra of which is "the right dose of the right drug for the right patient at the right time."
It reflects that treatments are gradually shifting from a relatively imprecise one-size-fits-all approach to a more personalized one, so patients can be matched to the best therapy based on their genetic makeup, the specific characteristics of their illness, and other predictive factors. This enables doctors to avoid prescribing a medication that is unlikely to be effective or that might cause serious side effects in certain patients.
The editorial ignores that those factors make possible drug testing in smaller, better-targeted populations. That is not a completely new concept. Under appropriate circumstances, the FDA has long used fewer and smaller clinical trials as the basis for approval.
What makes that possible is that medical research is increasingly discovering biological indicators, or "biomarkers"—such as variants of DNA sequences, the levels of certain enzymes, or the presence or absence of drug receptors—that can dictate how patients should be treated and to predict the likelihood that the intervention will be effective or elicit dangerous side effects.
Using biomarkers enables drug companies to better select patient populations for clinical trials to demonstrate efficacy. The reason is related to the statistical power of clinical studies: In any kind of experiment, a fundamental principle is that the greater the number of subjects or iterations, the greater the confidence in the results. Conversely, small studies generally have large uncertainties about results—and that is where biomarkers can make a difference.
By better defining the experimental groups, such as limiting the trial only to patients with a certain mutation in their genome or tumor, they can help drugmakers design clinical studies that will show "a high relative treatment difference" between the drug and whatever it is being compared to (often a placebo, but sometimes another treatment).
For example, a 2018 study of patients with certain rare pancreatic or gastrointestinal cancers found that analyzing the "protein-signaling networks" in the tumors could identify regulators of tumor survival. The researchers were then able to test the effect of various drugs on these regulators. That enabled them to predict in many patients which drugs would be effective in the tumors—the kind of precision oncology that makes possible smaller clinical trials.
The Times editorial faulted the FDA for "its roles in the opioid epidemic (regulators allowed too many opioids on the market without properly flagging them as addictive or deadly)," but, in fact, the regulators did ensure that the drugs were safe and effective when used according to the labels, which do, in fact, warn about addiction potential. Analogously, can the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives be blamed for many Americans suffering from alcoholism?
Criticizing the FDA for its handling of e-cigarettes is easy. But the Times editorial even got that wrong, echoing the calls of prohibitionists to ban the sale of these products to adult smokers, rather than aggressively enforcing the existing ban on sales to minors.
The Times could have landed a powerful science-based critique of the agency for perpetuating the activist-created myth that nicotine e-cigarettes had anything to do with the past year's lung disease outbreak, which was caused by adulterated THC oils, not nicotine vapes. By incorrectly blaming e-cigarettes for the illnesses, the FDA's misinformation prevented countless adult smokers from switching to a truly less harmful alternative. The Times failed to hold the agency accountable for not telling the truth when it mattered most.
The Times editorial accuses the agency of having become "too susceptible to outside pressure," which most FDA-watchers find to be groundless. If FDA has favored any special interests, they are "progressive" ones, including the organic food industry, which has systematically violated regulations concerning "absence claims" on labels (such as "GMO free"), and by acceding to the demands of "public health advocates" who reject harm reduction policies toward e-cigarettes. The remedy for such failings is better, smarter management.
The Times editorial claims the FDA "has too few resources and too little power to fulfill its key responsibilities." The facts argue otherwise. According to the Congressional Research Service:
Between FY2015 and FY2019, FDA's enacted total program level increased from $4.507 billion to $5.725 billion. Over this time period, congressionally appropriated funding increased by 21%, and user fee revenue increased by 35%. The Administration's FY2020 budget request was for a total program level of $5.981 billion, an increase of $256 million (+4%) over the FY2019 enacted amount ($5.725 billion).
More important than the raw numbers is how FDA's resources are being used. The agency has become extremely top-heavy, with ever more boxes appearing at the top of the organizational chart, even though the vast majority of day-to-day oversight and regulatory actions are taken at the level of FDA's various "centers"—the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, Center for Food Safety and Nutrition, and so on. The FDA needs to be put on a diet, not to have additional "resources."
The Times editorial endorsed a recent proposal to convert FDA from a component of the Department of Health and Human Services to an independent agency. That would be a prescription for disaster. Political meddling with the agency's decisions has been extremely rare in recent years, and the genuine calamities in which the FDA has been involved have been self-inflicted wounds that might have been avoided with more, not less, accountability and oversight.
Three distinguished former federal officials presented in the journal Health Affairs compelling procedural arguments against making FDA an independent agency. As an independent agency, they said, FDA would not be bound by the policies of the Department of Justice, potentially leading to inconsistent positions being taken by different parts of the government on issues that could include foreign policy.
Furthermore, they point out, applying a consistent approach to rulemaking as required by working within Health and Human Services and Office of Management and Budget strictures is a useful check on highly expensive or wrong-headed regulation. "It's also a way that Congress and the president can ensure consistency across government in the application of expertise in regulatory policy," they wrote.
The FDA's failures are a result of too much regulatory dithering and bureaucracy. Yet the Times' prescriptions for change would just increase the dose.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology. Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the Consumer Choice Center and a senior fellow at the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.