Nothing New: FDA Announces its Innovation Pathway Program for Breakthrough Technologies

February 15, 2011

By Jeffrey K. Shapiro

FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health (“CDRH”) has proposed the “Innovation Pathway Program” for breakthrough medical devices.  CDRH says it will review these products in 150 days or less, which the agency claims is nearly half the review time of most premarket approval (“PMA”) applications.  The first product in the program is from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (“DARPA”).  It is a brain-controlled, upper-extremity prosthetic device, which uses a microchip implanted on the surface of the brain to restore near-natural arm, hand, and finger function to patients suffering from spinal cord injury, stroke, or amputation.

Color us skeptical.  Not about the DARPA product.  We’re talking about the Innovation Pathway Program.

First of all, this program even at its best will affect probably just one or two products each year.  In other words, it is a very narrowly focused program.

Second, for many years, CDRH has had an Expedited Review procedure in place to speed approval of “breakthrough technology.”  Even CDRH has admitted it has not very worked well. 

The Innovation Pathway apparently is intended to improve CDRH’s track record with innovative products.  It would work like this:  CDRH will issue an Innovation Pathway Memorandum with a proposed roadmap and timeline for the development, clinical assessment, and regulatory review of the device.  The product would be assigned a case manager and reviewed by the Center Science Council, which is a new oversight body being developed within CDRH.  The Council will consist of senior managers and experienced scientists. 

As with the Expedited Review program, enrollment in the Innovation Pathway Program would not change the scientific or regulatory standards that CDRH uses to review submissions and authorize products for marketing.

As we said, color us skeptical.  The DARPA brain controlled prosthetic obviously has amazing potential, and FDA likely would have rushed it through in any event.  We’ll know if this new program has any value if additional products actually start speeding down the Innovation Pathway.

It already looks like that won’t happen any time soon.  CDRH said it will now seek comments from the public on this pathway before it is used again.  CDRH will host a public meeting on the Innovation Pathway program on March 15, 2011 at FDA’s White Oak campus.

This public outreach suggests the program announcement has been designed around the single DARPA product, and is not ready for prime time.  There will be a delay just to hold a public meeting and then digest the comments and further revise the program.

All of which suggests that it will be quite some time before another product is so lucky as to be allowed to speed down the Innovation Pathway.

We would prefer that CDRH work on significantly reducing the review times for all products, for both innovative and same-old, same-old technology.  That would be an innovation CDRH could be proud of.

Categories: Medical Devices