We’re already embroiled in the annual speculation game about whether FDA approvals this year will keep pace with last year’s near-record of 39 new molecular entities (NMEs) brought to market. The tally is closely watched as a sign of the state of biopharmaceutical innovation and the health of the pharmaceutical industry and biomedical research enterprise.
But this focus on the quantity of new drug approvals is misleading, according to FDA analysts, because it fails to distinguish between truly innovative new therapies and those that are similar to medicines already on the market, explains Mike Lanthier, operations research analyst on the economics staff of FDA’s Office of Planning. While all NMEs offer some therapeutic advantage, those that are “first-in-class” and “advance-in-class” medicines represent important advances, he explains. Alternatively, “addition-to-class” therapies may provide useful options for patients, but not substantial advances over existing products. And it is this last category that has experienced the much-hyped decline in approvals in recent years, while more vital therapies are holding steady or increasing in number, Lanthier points out in an FDA Voice blog posted Aug. 6, 2013. This “more nuanced and informative” assessment of NME categories thus refutes fears of an “innovation gap” that threatens drug discovery.
One factor may be a rise in small biopharma companies developing more innovative drugs, while large drug companies have focused on refining blockbuster drugs for large patient populations. NMEs from small companies have increased notably since 1996 and now account for 50% of approvals, compared to roughly one-third in the past, Lanthier and colleagues explain more fully in an article in the August 2013 issue of Health Affairs [“An Improved Approach to Measuring Drug Innovation Finds Steady Rates of First-In-Class Pharmaceuticals, 1987-2011,” Health Affairs, 32, No. 8, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/32/8/1433.abstract]
FDA initiatives also may support these developments. Most innovative NMEs have benefited from priority review treatment, and the new breakthrough drug program and added incentives for new antibiotics and pediatric treatments promise to expedite the development of innovative therapies. It’s also possible, the authors say, that the increased influence of large pharmacy benefit management firms reduces reimbursement for pricey drugs that lack proven benefits.
Another measure of biopharma innovation may be the number of new drug applications filed with FDA, although the quantity-over-quality measure also may apply here.