What’s in a name? FDA Calls out Amgen for Misdirection

July 16, 2021By Dara Katcher Levy

In case you missed it, FDA took to email and social media earlier this week (the equivalent of shouting it from the rooftops) to announce that it has notified Amgen Inc. of Neulasta (pegfilgrastim) misbranding due to false or misleading promotion.  This is OPDP’s second Untitled Letter and fourth letter overall this year.

Notably, this Untitled Letter is solely based on false or misleading benefit claims – FDA did not take ANY issue with Amgen’s presentation of safety.  This is only the second letter of this type in over five years; in the first instance, FDA took issue with a demonstrably false claim.  FDA’s 2018 CFL Guidance seemed to signal to industry that FDA would be more flexible on Rx drug benefit claims.  Generally, FDA has stayed true to that approach – with a focus on promotion that has some element of risk minimization.  Given this background, what happened here?

What happened is likely FDA’s concerns that the Neulasta promotion misleadingly sought to sow doubt about the efficacy of biosimilars.  While not a specifically stated priority for OPDP, FDA has prioritized biosimilar development to encourage innovation and competition among biologics.  As part of its initiatives on this front, FDA issued a Draft Guidance in February 2020 on Promotional Labeling and Advertising Considerations for Prescription Biological Reference and Biosimilar Products (Biologics Promotional Guidance).

The Neulasta promotion identified in the Untitled Letter is an animated banner that compares the rates of febrile neutropenia (FN) between “pegfilgrastim” pre-filled syringes (PFS) and Neulasta Onpro.  The banner presents claims that PFS resulted in a 31% increase in the rate of FN compared to Onpro.  This claim is based on a real world, retrospective study of 11,000 patients, comparing Neulasta PFS and Neulasta Onpro.  While the study evaluated Neulasta products in both arms, the banner refers to the PFS arm as “pegfilgrastim PFS,” NOT Neulasta PFS.  OPDP called out the use of this terminology in its letter:

The above misleading claims and presentations are particularly concerning from a public health perspective because they could undermine confidence not just in Neulasta delivered via PFS but also in FDA-licensed biosimilar pegfilgrastim products, which are only delivered via PFS. The above claims prominently present “Pegfilgrastim PFS” (emphasis added) as the comparator arm vs. “Neulasta Onpro” and “Onpro.” The use of the proper name (i.e., nonproprietary name) of Amgen’s PFS product, on the one hand, and the proprietary name of its OBI product, on the other, could result in healthcare providers failing to understand that Amgen’s Neulasta was used in both arms of the study. Healthcare providers could conclude that a biosimilar pegfilgrastim product delivered via PFS is not as effective as Amgen’s OBI product (i.e., Neulasta Onpro). As noted above, the study cited is inadequately designed and precludes the drawing of conclusions regarding the comparative risk of FN in patients taking Amgen’s pegfilgrastim products depending on delivery method. It likewise does not support conclusions about any other FDA-licensed pegfilgrastim products.

The Untitled Letter’s discussion about the name used aligns with FDA’s position, as articulated in its Biologics Promotional Guidance, on clearly identifying biological products in promotion:

Firms should carefully evaluate the information presented in promotional materials for reference products or biosimilar products to ensure that in each instance where the promotional materials address a product or products, the materials correctly and specifically identify the product or products to which the information applies (e.g., the reference product, the biosimilar product, or both the reference product and the biosimilar). . . Clearly and correctly identifying the relevant biological product or products in promotional materials can help prevent presentations that are inaccurate because they attribute data or information to the wrong product. It can also help the audience identify which product or products are the subject of a particular promotional presentation.

Biologics Promotional Guidance at 4.

Notwithstanding the name used, OPDP pointed out the following inadequacies with the study that render the claims misleading.  The study

  • was not designed to ensure that patients with FN were appropriately identified;
  • had no control to ensure the study populations were adequately balanced; and
  • selection bias was possible given the small absolute difference in rates between the arms.

FDA also stated that the disclosure of study limitations in the last two frames of the animation did not mitigate the misleading claims and presentations in the banner.

Interestingly, while FDA focused on an animated banner, it also called out its receipt of complaints through the FDA Bad Ad Program “regarding promotional communications with similar claims and presentations as the one discussed in this letter.”  The statement seems to suggest that this may be a course of conduct by Amgen with regard to Neulasta promotion.  Twenty years ago, FDA’s Warning Letter to AstraZeneca sent a strong message to industry that FDA would not tolerate brand messaging that suggested generic drugs were somehow less safe or effective than reference products.  We are interested to see whether OPDP will continue this approach through the strategic use of enforcement letters to protect biosimilars.