As medical miracles go, restoring sight to the blind is right up there. A mother seeing her baby for the first time, or a child being able to count the stars is a beautiful gift, and its value cannot be overstated. Last year 47,000 Americans received that gift and had their blindness reversed through the transplantation of cells from a corneal donor’s final selfless act.
It is safe, it is effective, and because it is curative, it is a relatively cost effective procedure. It is medicine at its most beautiful. And according to FDA regulations, the distribution of this cell therapy is in violation of federal law.
That’s right. The regulation says that no matter how competent the surgeon, the FDA must first approve cells from donated corneas as if they were a drug—a process that takes over a decade and can costs billions of dollars — all for a practice that has been successfully restoring sight for more than 50 years. And this is only one example.
The good news: the FDA doesn’t always adhere to its regulations and has not in this case.
The bad news: inconsistent enforcement creates uncertainty, deterring innovation for other unmet medical needs such as arthritis, back pain, and diabetic ulcers.
How did a country known for pioneering medical breakthroughs get here?
Appropriate regulation of living cells that treat disease is inherently complex. Some therapies, like corneal cell transplants, are well-understood. Others are far more sophisticated and can involve forcing cells to change from one type to another, cutting out defective genes, and growing cells in culture to expand their numbers into the billions. Although this may sound like science fiction, it’s the type of very real science that will revolutionize the practice of medicine. And it is a challenging spectrum to regulate.
Unfortunately, what we have today amounts to a regulatory light switch for cell therapy; one that is either OFF or ON. For some cell therapies there is essentially no pre-market regulation. But at some point of added complexity, often arbitrarily decided by the FDA, the switch flips to ON and the cell becomes a drug in the minds of the Agency. And the consequences could not be more profound.
A product can be introduced through the OFF pathway in days with no FDA review and at very little cost. The ON pathway on the other hand, takes 10-20 years and can cost over a billion dollars. For cell therapy, there is no in between.
It is not possible to regulate the continuum of cell therapies fairly and effectively by using this binary approach. The system is broken and is impeding the hunt for safe and effective treatments for suffering patients.
Why? Because sensible people don’t invest significant capital gambling that the FDA will give them a pass out of its rules. They evaluate the time and cost of development assuming they will be forced down the ON pathway. They also assume that this arbitrary approach to regulation will (and often does) work against them by allowing a competitor to enter the market through the OFF pathway, placing them at a prohibitive disadvantage. The results speak for themselves. After 15 years under this paradigm we have had only a few cell therapies approved, all commercial disasters.
This is because the ON-OFF approach fails to adequately account for the difference in cell therapy complexity. To better understand, imagine this methodology applied to the regulation of automobiles. The government might permit low tech cars, say the Model T, to be sold without pre-market regulation. But if a manufacturer wanted to improve the vehicle by adding air conditioning, a radio or other such feature, the car would be subject to massive pre-market regulation. And not just on the new feature. Instead, the addition of the new feature would trigger a bumper-to-bumper evaluation of the entire car, increasing its development cost from basically nothing to that of a Lamborghini. The result would be streets full of hot, radio-less go-karts, except for a few ultra-high-end sports cars whose manufacturers are now defunct because they were never able to recoup the disproportionate costs of satisfying the regulatory system. This is what we see with cell therapies today: progress that is sluggish at best.
How can we move forward?
Ironically, the FDA identified a solution to the problem. In order to account for the broad spectrum inherent to cell therapy, in the late 90’s the FDA proposed a progressive, risk-based approach. The higher the risk, the greater the regulation. This guards against under regulation that might put patients at risk and prevents overregulation that can disincentivize the development of new or improved products.
In the FDA’s own words, the regulation they proposed would abide by a few basic principles:
· “Under this tiered, risk-based approach, we propose to exert only the type of government regulation necessary to protect the public health.”
· “The regulation of different types of human cells… will be commensurate with the public health risks…”
· “These planned improvements will increase the safety of human cells… while encouraging the development of new products.”
It was a remarkably common sense approach that would have balanced safety with the need for innovation over an exceptionally broad range of technological complexity and risk.
It would have.
Unfortunately, the regulatory framework that was promised was never delivered, and it is time to resuscitate it. The burden placed on the development of cell therapies must accurately reflect the risks; must be balanced against the very real consequences of doing nothing (patients continuing to suffer); and must be consistently and fairly applied. In short, the FDA had it right and we need to give them the tools to deliver the regulatory paradigm they originally envisioned.
If we fix this highly fixable problem, we can create a system that will drive new innovations and better outcomes. Europe and Japan have already acted and are seeing the benefits. People with great ideas are coming off the bench, and game changing therapies are entering practice. While challenging the status quo does not sit well with some, particularly those who stand to prosper from the built-in barriers to entry the current structure provides, in the United States we have a responsibility to do better for patients and fix this broken system.
C. Randal Mills is the President and CEO of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine
William “Bill” H. Frist, M.D. is a nationally-acclaimed heart and lung transplant surgeon, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader, and chairman of the Executive Board of the health service private equity firm Cressey Company.