Biosimilar Naming: Blackwhite and read all over

  • by: |
  • 06/20/2014

Urban legend attributes the following quote to Albert Shanker, the very outspoken past president of the American Federation of Teachers:

“When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of children.”

As always, it’s a question of priorities – and whose priorities. Today that same issue has arisen in the debate over biosimilar nomenclature.

The issue for drug compendia stakeholders (among other things) is interoperability.

According to Inside Health Policy:

“While some say an easy solution is to simply add a suffix to distinguish a biosimilar from the innovator product, the compendia group told FDA any change is a change, and regardless of the simplicity of the change, the associated coding would also have to shift. First data bank and two other databanks are sold to stakeholders who assemble them and put overlays on them and then the data are used for different purposes, including for reimbursement.”

Yes, well unfortunately change is not always easy. But as management guru W. Edwards Deming warned, “Change is not required. Survival is not mandatory.”

Assigning differential naming to biosimilar products will certainly prove challenging to the various constituents of the drug compendia community – but it will be crucial for pharmacovigilance. In the real world, how can we not have separate names when there are going to be four categories of products?

Based on comparative analytical data, FDA will characterize its assessment of biosimilarity into one of four levels -- not similar, similar, highly similar or highly similar with a fingerprint-like similarity -- depending on the type, nature and extent of any structural and functional differences revealed.

Additional pharmacologic studies would be required to show that the identified difference is "within an acceptable range to consider the proposed biosimilar product to be highly similar to the reference product." FDA said only products in the top two tiers would meet the statutory requirement for analytical similarity under the Biologics Price Competition and Innovation Act of 2009. Products in the top two tiers would then only require "targeted and selective animal and/or clinical studies to resolve residual uncertainties" to demonstrate biosimilarity. In addition, these data could be used to extrapolate clinical data for additional indications.

Giving credit where credit is due, the good people at the USP understand that interoperability is important, but that naming is more of a philosohpical issue. That's why they support differentiation via discrete numerical suffix.

Per Inside Health Policy:

The drug compendia stakeholders told a group of 13 FDA drug policy experts, including drug center chief Janet Woodcock, that changing the traditional naming process would require that each piece of the compendia process be individually rebuilt in order to ensure patient safety and restore functionality to the system. Doing so, while possible, would be difficult and could lead to confusion, errors and misunderstanding, creating a "very real risk to patients," according to slides presented at the May 2 meeting and a June 6 follow-up letter, obtained by Inside Health Policy.

The argument that differential naming is bad for patient safety is pure Orwellian Newspeak -- specifically “blackwhite,” The ability to accept whatever "truth" the party puts out, no matter how absurd it may be.

When it comes to biosimilar nomenclature, it’s urgent that we keep our priorities straight. And that means keeping patient safety, not interoperability challenges, at the top of the agenda.

Fortunately, White Oak trumps blackwhite.


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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