FDA proposes accelerated approval of early-stage Alzheimer’s drugs based on cognitive improvement alone

By |2018-11-14T00:25:31+00:00April 5, 2013|Biomarkers, Drug Development, Neurodegenerative Diseases|

Pittsburgh compound B staining in AD. Source: National Institute on Aging/NIH.

Pittsburgh compound B staining in AD. Source: National Institute on Aging/NIH.

In our February 28, 2013 article on the Biopharmconsortium Blog, we discussed the FDA’s February 7, 2013 Draft Guidance for Industry entitled “Alzheimer’s Disease: Developing Drugs for the Treatment of Early Stage Disease”.

This document had been distributed for comment purposes only, and the FDA has been seeking public comment on the draft guidance for 60 days following publication.

As we discussed, by issuing this Draft Guidance, the FDA added its voice to that of an ever-increasing segment of the scientific community that calls for a new focus on conducting clinical trials in early-stage Alzheimer’s disease (AD). This is in order to  focus industry R&D on developing treatments for patients whose disease is in a stage prior to the development of extensive irreversible brain damage. It is in this early stage of disease in which researchers believe that new drugs have the best chance of providing benefits to patients, by preventing further damage to the brain.

In our February 28, 2013 article, we also discussed several clinical trials being carried out by industry and academic researchers in early-stage AD. These trials should allow the scientific and medical community to answer the question as to whether treating patients with pre-AD or very early-stage AD with anti-amyloid MAb drugs can have a positive effect on the course of the disease, and slow or prevent cognitive decline.

Readers of our article may have noticed that the February 7, 2013 Draft Guidance was somewhat vague or confused. That is because there is currently no evidence-based consensus as to which biomarkers might be appropriate to support clinical findings in trials in early AD. Moreover, in “pre-AD” or very early-stage AD (i.e., before the onset of overt dementia) disease-related impairments are extremely challenging to assess accurately. Thus both measuring clinical outcomes and assessment via biomarkers in very early-stage AD are fraught with difficulty, making determination of drug efficacy very difficult.

In issuing the Draft Guidance, The FDA appeared to be seeking guidance from industry and from the academic community on how these issues might be resolved. As we said in our article, the early-stage AD trials now in progress might help the scientific and medical community, and the FDA, with issues of evaluation of biomarkers and clinical outcome measures in determining disease prognosis and the efficacy of drug treatments.

More recently–on March 13, 2013–the FDA proposed a further modification of its proposed guidelines for regulation of early-stage AD therapeutics. This was published online in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), entitled “Regulatory Innovation and Drug Development for Early-Stage Alzheimer’s Disease”, by Nicholas Kozauer, M.D. and Russell Katz, M.D. (As we stated in our earlier article, Dr.Katz is the director of the Division of Neurology Products in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. Dr. Kozauer is a Clinical Team Lead in the same division of the FDA.)

The new proposal attempts to deal with some of the apparent confusion in the February 7, 2013 Draft Guidance, and to facilitate the development and approval of new drugs for early-stage AD. The NEJM article notes that traditional measures of AD drug efficacy at the FDA had included assessment both of improved cognition and improvements in function. Specifically, as stated by a New York Times article discussing the new FDA proposal, “cognition” refers to such mental processes as memory and reasoning (as assessed by various tests), and “function” refers to performing such day-to-day activities as cooking, dressing or bathing.

In the FDA’s March 13, 2013 NEJM article, the authors note that researchers and regulatory agencies “simply do not yet have drug-development tools that are validated to provide measures of function in patients with Alzheimer’s disease before the onset of overt dementia”. Thus, although one can test early-stage AD patients for improvements in cognition with the appropriate tests, testing for deficits and improvements in function is extremely difficult.

The authors of the NEJM article therefore suggest that it might be feasible that a drug for treating early-stage AD be approved via the FDA’s accelerated approval pathway, on the basis of assessment of cognitive outcome alone. The agency’s accelerated-approval pathway allows drugs that address an unmet medical need to be approved on the basis of a surrogate or an intermediate clinical endpoint–in this case, a sensitive measure of improvement in cognition. Drugs approved via “accelerated approval” must be subjected to postmarketing studies to verify the clinical benefit. This regulatory pathway might facilitate the approval of treatments that appear to be effective in early AD, when patients might be expected to derive a greatest benefit than after the development of overt dementia.

With respect to selection of patients for trials in early-stage AD, the authors of the NEJM article suggest that (based on “the consensus emerging within the AD research community”) clinical diagnosis of early cognitive impairment be combined with appropriate biomarkers. These biomarkers might include brain amyloid load [as measured by positron-emission tomography (PET)] and cerebrospinal fluid levels of β-amyloid and tau proteins. The FDA places a high priority on efforts by the researchers to qualify such biomarkers in clinical trial design in early-stage AD.

The author of the New York Times article, veteran science and medicine reporter Gina Kolata, says that the FDA’s new proposal could “help millions of people at risk of developing [AD] by speeding the development and approval of drugs that might slow or prevent it.”

She also says that the proposal could be a boon for the pharmaceutical industry and AD researchers. They have often been hampered by regulations that left them uncertain of how to get drugs tested and approved for early-stage AD. Not only might anti-AD therapies provide greater benefit to patients with early-stage AD than with later stage disease, but clinical trials in early-stage AD would have a greater potential for success–provided that researchers had appropriate means of determining efficacy in early-stage AD. The new FDA proposal may increase the likelihood of identifying such appropriate means.

As pointed out in the Times article, several leading AD researchers agree, with some important caveats. For example, AD researcher P. Murali Doraiswamy, M.D. (Duke University School of Medicine) said that the new proposed regulations would lead to more clinical trials, and more motivation now to invest in the AD field. However, many companies never manage to do postmarking studies required for drugs given accelerated approval, and such studies might not be randomized clinical trials as required in gaining approval of the drugs in the first place.

Sean Bohen, M.D., Ph.D. (Senior Vice President for Early Development at Genentech) was very positive about the proposed new FDA policy, but wondered how researchers could develop appropriate tests to identify subtle cognitive changes in early AD or pre-AD. Nevertheless, he said, “We have to start somewhere.”

Thus clinical trials in early-stage AD, and development of regulatory frameworks for approval and postmarketing studies of agents that emerge from these trials, remain a work in progress.


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