Event recap: Lessons learned from two years of breakthrough therapy designation

The breakthrough therapy designation (BTD) program was initiated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2012 to expedite the development of treatments for serious or life-threatening illness that demonstrate “substantial improvement” over existing therapies. The program has since become a widely supported mechanism for accelerating patient access to new drugs. As of March 2015, FDA has received a total of 293 requests for BTD. However, it has granted just  82 (28%), which indicates an ongoing lack of clarity over what exactly meets the criteria for the designation.

On April 24, the Center for Health Policy at Brookings convened a public meeting to explore the designation’s qualifying criteria and how FDA applies those criteria across therapeutic areas. Panelists used real-world and hypothetical case studies to frame the discussion, and highlighted major considerations for the application process, the FDA’s evaluation of the evidence, and the key factors for acceptance or rejection. The discussion also identified strategies to ensure that qualifying criteria are well understood. Here are the five big takeaways:

The BTD program is viewed positively by drug companies, researchers, advocates, and others 

Across the board, participants expressed enthusiasm for the BTD program. Industry representatives noted that their experience had been extremely positive, and that the increased cooperation with and guidance from FDA were very helpful in streamlining their development programs. Receiving the designation can also raise a drug company’s profile, which can facilitate additional investment as well as clinical trial patient recruitment; this is particularly important for smaller companies with limited resources.

Patient and disease advocates were likewise supportive, and expressed hope that the early lessons learned from successful breakthrough therapy approvals (which have been mostly concentrated in the oncology and antiviral fields) could be translated to other disease areas with less success. However, while BTD is an important tool in expediting the development of new drugs, it is just one piece of broader scientific and regulatory policy landscape. Accelerating the pace of discovery and development of truly innovative new drugs will depend on a range of other factors, such as developing and validating new biomarkers that can be used to measure treatment effects at an earlier stage, as well as establishing networks that can streamline the clinical trial process. It will also be important to develop effective new approaches to collecting, analyzing, and communicating information about these treatments once they are on the market, as this information can potentially be used by FDA, providers, and patients to  further improve prescription drug policy and medical decision-making.

BTD requests far outnumber those that actually meet the qualifying criteria

Since the program began, less than 30 percent of requests have received BTD designation. A substantial majority were denied at least in part due to either a lack of data or problems with the quality of the data, or some combination of the two. For example, some sponsors requested the designation before they had any clinical data, or submitted the request using clinical data that was incomplete or based on flawed study designs. Many requests also failed to meet the Agency’s bar for “substantial improvement” over existing therapies.

One reason for the high denial rate may be a lack of a clear regulatory or statutory bar that could be used as a definitive guide for sponsors to know what is needed to qualify for the designation. BTD denials are also confidential, which means that sponsors effectively have nothing to lose by submitting a request. Going forward, manufacturers may need to exercise more discretion in deciding to request the designation, as the process can be resource- and time-intensive for both sides.

There is no single threshold for determining what defines a breakthrough therapy

About 53 percent of the 109 total BTD denials were due at least in part to the fact that the drug did not represent a substantial improvement over existing therapies. During the day’s discussion, FDA and sponsors both noted that this is likely because the criteria for BTD are inherently subjective. In practice, this means there is no clear threshold for determining when a new therapy represents a “substantial improvement” over existing therapies. Designation decisions are complex and highly dependent on the context, including the disease or condition being targeted, the availability of other treatments, the patient population, the outcomes being studied, and the overall reliability of the data submitted. Given the multiple factors at play, it can be difficult in some cases to determine when a new product is potentially “transformational” as opposed to “better,” especially for conditions that are poorly understood or have few or no existing treatments. In making its determinations, FDA considers the totality of the evidence submitted, rather than focusing on specific evidentiary requirements.

Early communication with FDA is strongly recommended for BTD applicants

Roughly 72 percent of the BTD denials related at least in part to trial design or analysis problems, which led several people to suggest that sponsors engage with FDA prior to submitting their request. Though there are several formal mechanisms for interacting with the agency, informal consultations with the relevant review division could help sponsors to get a better  and much earlier sense of what kind of data FDA might need. This early communication could both strengthen viable BTD requests and reduce the number of frivolous requests.

FDA may need more resources for implementing the BTD program

Drugs that receive breakthrough designation are subject to much more intensive FDA guidance and review. However, when the program was established in 2012, Congress did not allocate funding to cover its costs. There have been ongoing concerns that the program is exacting a significant toll on FDA’s already limited resources, and potentially affecting the timeline for other drug application reviews. These concerns were reiterated during the day’s discussion, and some suggested that Congress consider attaching a user fee to the BTD program when the Prescription Drug User Fee Act comes up for reauthorization in 2017.