When FDA Makes You An Offer You Can’t Refuse

May 25, 2021By Deborah L. Livornese & David B. Clissold & Josephine M. Torrente

NDA approval – that pinnacle of drug development – marks a moment of success for both FDA and the drug applicant.  The regulated and the regulator, having worked together for years, place a novel or improved therapy, with adequate directions for its use, in the hands of prescribers and patients.  The adequacy of those directions for use, in the form of the Prescribing Information (PI), is essential to the shared success.  The PI is key to both the safe and effective use of the product and the applicant’s ability to fully inform prescribers of its uses.  It’s for this reason that we are somewhat alarmed by a disturbing trend in the development of the PI for certain drugs.  That trend has seen some CDER review divisions providing dramatic changes to proposed labeling so late in the review process as to thwart thoughtful discussion.

Let’s take a step back.  As part of a drug’s marketing application, the applicant submits a proposed PI that includes information about the drug’s “indications, effects, dosages, routes, methods, and frequency and duration of administration and any relevant warnings, hazards, contraindications, side effects, and precautions, under which practitioners licensed by law to administer the drug can use the drug safely and for the purposes for which it is intended, including all conditions for which it is advertised or represented.” 21 CFR 201.100(d)(3), 314.50.   The applicant’s proposed PI is heavily annotated to technical reports and information in the NDA that support the inclusion of each statement in the labeling. 21 CFR 314.50.  Needless to say, teams of professionals, including clinicians, statisticians, pharmacists, clinical pharmacologists, and commercialization and reimbursement experts, spend many months refining and annotating the proposal.  During review, CDER professionals, including multiple members of the primary review team, the Office of Prescription Drug Promotion (OPDP), Clinical Outcome Assessment Qualification Program (COA) and the Office of Surveillance and Epidemiology (OSE), carefully evaluate the information and convene internal meetings to discuss any revisions that it believes are necessary.  Subsequent labeling discussions between the applicant and CDER to resolve any differences result in a final approved PI.

What with so many people evaluating so much information in such an important document, the need for thorough and thoughtful labeling discussions becomes an imperative to those with a sincere desire to see the drug succeed in aiding patients.  To be clear, we have no doubts about CDER staff’s sincere desire to see drugs it approves aid patients.  But that desire just doesn’t square with presenting the applicant with a take-it-or-leave-it approach to initial suggested labeling edits with no opportunity for discussion.  And yet, that’s what we see in far too many cases:  either labeling is not provided at all until very close to the action date or, perhaps more objectionable, CDER’s initial revised labeling is provided consistent with a communicated and reasonable timeline but edits to certain key sections are withheld until very close to the action date.  In these cases, applicants are invariably told that there is no time for discussion; their choices are to accept CDER’s edits and have the drug approved or to engage in discussions which, the applicants are warned, will likely result in a Complete Response action with the discussions occurring in the ominous “next cycle of review.”  While valor suggests that an applicant should stand its ground and fight for its drug, many companies understandably choose to accept FDA’s imperfect edits.  (As an aside, this is when we at HPM usually get a call from a potential client wanting to appeal the approved labeling language.  But, of course, such an appeal is not permitted as FDA argues that the applicant “voluntarily” changed its labeling and agreed to submit the labeling as revised by FDA.  And we have the unenviable task of explaining to a CEO that we cannot appeal her drug’s approval.)

This isn’t to say that CDER as a whole has adopted this approach.  CDER in fact recognizes that “[s]ince essential labeling discussions by necessity occur toward the end of the review cycle when available time is limited, it is important that communication between the FDA and applicants be clear and efficient.  Adherence to the review timeline, including completion of primary and secondary reviews well in advance of the PDUFA goal date, allows time to resolve labeling content issues and avoids crisis management of these issues near the PDUFA goal date.”  Guidance for Review Staff and Industry:  Good Review Management Principles and Practices for PDUFA Products (GRP Guidance) at 21.  CDER intends that draft labeling comments, along with an explanation for major changes, will be returned to the applicant at Month 8.25 of a 10-month review cycle.  CDER 21st Century Review Process Desk Reference Guide (DRG).

The DRG cautions that “[l]abeling discussions beginning too close to the end of the review cycle frequently result in inadequate time available to discuss labeling that both the applicant and the Agency can agree upon.”  DRG at 45.  This caution is correctly read as a call to ensure timely review.  But multiple clients allege that some CDER divisions seem to view it as a method of avoiding discussions of proposed language changes that lack scientific justification.  Essentially, the less defensible a proposed edit to the PI, the more likely that it will come as a last-minute change without time for discussion in the current review cycle.

As acknowledged in the DRG, it is the discussion – “the action or process of talking about something in order to reach a decision or to exchange ideas; a conversation or debate about a certain topic” (Lexico.com) that culminates in a PI that is maximally informative and valuable to prescribers and patients.  The exchange of redlined versions of the PI, often with no explanation for the division’s changes (or, worse, with only conclusory statements about certain language being “misleading” and no time to clarify the point) and/or no attempt to respond to scientific points made by the applicant (i.e., “The Division continues to believe that our recommended language is appropriate”) may serve as the start of that “conversation” by highlighting particular areas of disagreement with or misunderstanding of the sponsor’s proposal.  It should not, however, be the only means of communication about these points or the only step to approved labeling.

A timely, thoughtful and iterative process between the applicant and FDA is most likely to produce an informative PI that improves the drug’s benefit-risk profile.  Here’s hoping we can all keep our eye on that goal when nearing drug approval.