Compassion, it seems, is in the eyes of the beholder

  • by: |
  • 05/06/2014

Yet another reason to stop calling it "compassionate use" and start calling it by it's proper name -- "expanded access."

The Wall Street Journal reports …

The FDA Says It’s More Compassionate Than You Think

Even as drug makers and desperate patients increasingly battle over access to experimental medicines for life-threatening conditions, Food and Drug Administration officials argue the agency is doing its part to make things right.

In the wake of some recent high-profile cases that made television news and prompted social media outcries, the FDA has released data showing that nearly every request it gets for “compassionate use”’ is approved.

The term refers to an FDA program in which individuals who are seriously sick and lack options are able to gain access to a medicine being developed, even though they are not enrolled in a clinical trial. For this to happen, a patient’s physician must first receive permission from the drug maker testing the medicine. From there, the physician must seek what amounts to a blessing from the FDA.

In recent years, the FDA has been very agreeable. In the fiscal year ended last October, the agency approved 863 requests, or 99 percent of all cases reviewed, according to FDA data. And one-third of those were approved on an emergency basis. In fact, the agency has approved 99 percent of all requests since October 2009. On average, 932 requests were endorsed annually since then.

“I think the numbers speak well for the program,” says Richard Klein, director of the patient liaison program in the FDA Office of Health and Constituent Affairs.

In reality, though, the process is not working as some patients would hope. Drug makers sometimes deny requests for compassionate use because they want to stick with strict trial criteria needed to win FDA marketing approval for their medicines. An unexpected patient reaction, for instance, might jeopardize a drug’s chance of success. In some instances, a company claims not to have sufficient supplies to handle a large number of requests.

This is what happened recently when a small biotech company called Chimerix denied a Virginia family. Their 7-year-old son, a cancer survivor, developed a viral infection after a bone marrow transplant and they hoped he would benefit from an antiviral drug Chimerix is developing. But repeated rejections became a publicity debacle as criticism was directed at the company and the FDA program as well.

The FDA said it intervened by working with Chimerix to design a pilot study to include the boy. That pilot study is now underway, according to a Chimerix spokesman. But an FDA spokeswoman says this was not the first time the FDA took such a step. Meanwhile, the FDA’s Klein says the agency is developing a new draft guidance, or blueprint, for handling expanded access cases.

“The agency only provides the pathway,” he says. “If a company is not willing to entertain a request [for compassionate use], then it doesn’t come to us. Most of the time, we only know about the applications where companies are willing to make drugs available. The numbers we have don’t include the times when companies say no. And there’s not a lot of data to say what the outcomes of these situations are.”

Maybe not. But perhaps FDA officials should find a way to require drug makers to report their compassionate use decisions – approvals and rejections – so the public can see the extent to which the program is having its intended effect.


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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