This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series
By Jennifer Carter-Johnson, PhD, JD
On June 7, 2021, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a controversial new Alzheimer’s Disease drug—aducanumab—to be sold by Biogen under the name Aduhelm. Alzheimer’s disease is estimated to currently be affecting over 6 million Americans plus their families, who must watch the mental decline of their loved ones and provide increasing levels of care as the disease progresses.
Unfortunately, the approval of Aduhelm has generated a large amount of controversy because the FDA approval came despite the rejection of the studies of the drug’s efficacy by the FDA advisory committee. The opposition to the FDA’s approval has been so heated that three of the eleven-person advisory committee have resigned.
Detailed discussions of the science behind Alzheimer’s disease and the Aduhelm clinical studies can be found elsewhere. In summary, as Alzheimer’s disease progresses, protein plaques—amyloid and tau—build up in the patients’ brain. The progression of these plaques correlated with decreased mental acuity in patients. Therefore, drug candidates that target these plaques have been of interest to scientists for many years.
While the clinical data associated with Aduhelm supported a decrease in brain plaques in early-stage Alzheimer’s patients, the data did not show that decreasing plaques by the drug resulted in slowed progression of Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, the data showed that some patients have brain swelling as a result of the drug. Using this data, the FDA approved Aduhelm for broad use for all Alzheimer’s patients.
FDA Approval Process
Generally, to gain approval to sell a new drug, a company will complete a series of clinical trials to determine if a drug candidate is safe and effective for a given disease. Safety and efficacy are balanced against each other and consideration is given to the severity of the disease to determine if approval will be granted. As an example, a highly effective drug that is also highly toxic would not be approved as a simple headache remedy but may be approved as a treatment against a fast-growing, inoperable form of brain tumor. Conversely, an ineffective drug should never be approved no matter how safe it is—such are the wares of snake-oil salesmen of the past.
The FDA also has an Accelerated Approval pathway to allow drugs for diseases that have few treatments to proceed to market more quickly. It is under this accelerated path that the FDA approved Aduhelm. The accelerated pathway allows companies to use biomarker changes rather than disease improvement to show efficacy in the drug approval process. The FDA used the decrease in amyloid plaques as the biomarker for approval of the new Alzheimer’s drug—despite the fact that the clinical trial studies were submitted to show efficacy against disease progression. Moreover, the advisory committee was not informed of potential accelerated approval. Only after the clinical trial data was found unacceptable by the advisory committee did the FDA switch to the accelerated approval pathway. Perhaps most importantly, other drug candidates have been abandoned after amyloid plaque removal did not halt progression of the disease, so biomarkers may not be effective ways to judge the halt of Alzheimer’s progression.
The accelerated approval is, in effect, a contingent approval. Biogen will be allowed to sell Aduhelm, but it must gather data as to whether the drug is actually effective. If clinical data does not eventually support reduced disease progression, then the FDA can rescind the approval, and Biogen will no longer be able to sell the drug. The FDA’s approval of the Aduhelm may be harmful in the long run for several reasons.
Trust in FDA
The move by the FDA to approve Aduhelm could lead to a decrease in trust in the agency. First, the controversial nature of its approval over the recommendations of the scientists who reviewed the data created a controversy that is playing out across the news media as people wonder why an ineffective drug has been approved.
In fairness, the accelerated approval process is contingent, but due to the way the accelerated approval was used scientists did not have the opportunity to weigh-in on the use of biomarkers in that approval. That way in which the accelerated approval process was tapped, only after the regular approval process seemed doomed to fail, may well erode trust that the FDA evenly applies its own rules. Additionally, it is very difficult to rescind these accelerated approvals, and if the drug approval is rescinded public perception will likely be highly negative. Finally, according to Biogen it may take up to nine years to gather the data to complete the required studies.
New Drug Development
Aduhelm is not the only drug candidate in its class in clinical trials for Alzheimer’s disease treatment. Other drug candidates that include patients who receive a placebo rather than the drug candidate are undergoing clinical trials. Since these studies tend to be double-blinded—neither the doctor nor the patient knows if the drug or the placebo has been administered—patients will likely drop out of these other studies in order to be assured of receiving some drug. Thus, Alzheimer’s drug development will be slowed, in favor of a drug that has no demonstrable efficacy. Additionally, these new drug manufacturers may also ask for similar approval, based on biomarkers that may not be indicative of clinical effectiveness.
Patients and Alzheimer’s advocates pushed for approval of this drug. But a drug with contingent approval may give these patients and their families false hopes. We have seen in Right to Try legislation–legislation allowing patients to use un-approved drugs in the FDA approval pipeline–both a fundamental lack of understanding of the FDA approval process as well as the desperation of patients for whom there are no clear treatment options. I have argued before that Right to Try laws prey on the emotionally fragile. Here the FDA’s controversial accelerated approval may have the same result—patients clamoring for a drug that does not work.
In addition, the cost of the drug will be borne by insurance companies that may well decide not to cover the drug. While the drug is approved for all stages of Alzheimer’s, clinical studies were only aimed at early-stage disease. In effect, the FDA has shifted its responsibility as gatekeeper for effective drugs to insurance companies for whom profit is a driving force.
The cost of Aduhelm in light of the lack of efficacy data presents its own problems. Biogen has indicated that the average yearly cost of Aduhelm will be $56,000, not including the cost of doctors, hospital or clinic visits, and supplies to receive the infusions, or the cost of brain scans to monitor for swelling and brain bleeds as side effects. This cost, like most drugs, will be passed on to consumers through direct payments, increased insurance premiums, and higher budget expenditures for Medicare and Medicaid. One study reported that if 500,000 people on Medicare are prescribed the drug, it would cost $29 billion per year with copays of over $11,000 per year.
Biogen defends its pricing of the drug. According to its own press release, Biogen “established the price of Aduhelm based on the overall value this treatment is expected to bring to patients, caregivers, and society.” This expected value seems high for a drug that may not work but admittedly reflects normal drug company calculations in a system where insurance covers most prescriptions and the uninsured either do without or rely on the generosity of the drug company.
Because FDA approval is contingent, the FDA can remove the drug from the market if the required data do not show efficacy. However, the money paid for the failed treatment regime will not be refunded. Patients are paying to take this risk.
In the end, the FDA’s approval of Aduhelm will impact the way the agency is perceived, and the way other companies approach the drug approval process. Neither of these changes will be for the better.
Jennifer Carter-Johnson, PhD, JD, is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Law at the Michigan State University College of Law.
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