Will patients benefit from the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act? After listening to politicians and reading the headlines, most people might think it’s the best thing ever to come along for patients.
“A new day for medical research is on the horizon,” proclaimed Rep. Fred Upton, the outgoing chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee which had just won a major victory last week. “The House and the Senate have passed this bipartisan legislation which will ensure our health system can keep pace with incredible advances in science and technology,” Upton said in the GOP’s weekly radio address. “We needed to do better. And with 21st Century Cures, we will.”
Media headlines mirrored Upton’s victory declaration. Headlines like this from the Wall Street Journal, “House Passes Health Bill to Speed Drug Approvals, Boost Biomedical Research” seemed to say it all: faster drug approvals, more money for research, less pesky regulation.
Or was there more to the story? Not everyone thinks the Cures Act will be wonderful for patients. But their voices were drowned out in the slick public relations campaign Upton’s committee waged over the past few years using some 200 or so patient advocacy organizations to push for the bill. Most of those groups have strong ties to the drug and medical device industry.
A recent study by Dr. Vinay Prasad, an oncologist at Oregon Health Sciences University, found that three-quarters of 68 cancer advocacy groups he studied disclosed sponsorship from pharmaceutical companies. Some groups received money from as many as 16 or 17.
Prasad told me, “Ten years from now, someone with a cancer diagnosis will be worse off with this bill. People will be exposed to more things that don’t work.” Prasad and others say the Cures Act actually lowers the regulatory standards for drugs and devices. It’s a step backward for patients.
In a nutshell the Act turns current regulatory practice on its head.
Randomized trials, the gold standard for medical research, may disappear if a drug company wants to sell a medicine for a different condition than the one it’s already approved for. Instead it can use “real world evidence” to show the drug also works for a new indication. Such “evidence” could be observational studies, which are less reliable than randomized trials, but are cheaper and take less time.
The FDA can use patient experience to inform its regulatory decisions — information about the impact of a disease or related therapy on patients’ lives. The data can come from patients, family members, caregivers, patient advocacy organizations, disease research foundations and drug manufacturers.
The agency can approve new drugs on the basis of data summaries rather than requiring the FDA to independently analyze study results for a new drug indication. Drug makers would have to submit all their data, but the FDA would not have to review it.
And although the bill authorizes billions for new medical research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the funding is not guaranteed, and the NIH would have to fight Congress for the money.
The Cures Act is the culmination of a 20-year effort by the drug industry and Beltway think tanks to loosen standards and permit new uses for drugs already approved in order to expand their markets. It can be traced back to the 1997 FDA Modernization Act, which was then — as the Cures Act is now — sold on the promise of getting cures to market faster. The 1997 law loosened regulatory standards and reduced the number of clinical trials needed for drug approval.
Are the changes brought about by the earlier law a harbinger of what’s to come?
The reporting by John Fauber and his colleagues at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel offers a cautionary tale. In the past few years the paper has reported how drug and device makers have spent huge sums of money to sell drugs for conditions that were once thought to be part of everyday life.
The reporters found that drug companies turned conditions such as overactive bladder, adult ADHD and premenstrual dysphoric disorder into medically treatable ailments. They reported that the latter was not even recognized as a mental disorder until 13 years after the first drug treatments were on the market. “Drugs used to treat the various medicalized conditions don’t work that well and often have side effects that are nearly as common as the benefit,” Fauber told me.
Are we turning the calendar back to 1933 when a book called “100,000,000 Guinea Pigs” was published exposing the dangers of patent medicines? Federal oversight of drugs was pretty lax then, and patients died. It’s obvious drug makers will benefit from looser regulation. It remains to be seen whether patients will, too.
Trudy Lieberman, a journalist for more than 40 years, is a contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review, where she blogs about health care and retirement at cjr.org. She can be reached at email@example.com. This column was distributed by The Rural Health News Service.