“Who is making all these decisions about science and technology that are going to determine what kind of future our children live in? Just some members of Congress? But there’s no more than a handful of them with any background in science at all! … This combustible mixture of ignorance and power is… going to blow up in our faces”.
– Carl Sagan, in interview with Charlie Rose
The Office of Technology Assessment (the “OTA”) was founded in 1972. It was charged by Congress with providing “competent, unbiased information concerning the physical, biological, economic, social and political effects” of new technologies. It made predictions and forecasts about what new developments were likely and distilled the entire assessment into impartial advice and actionable steps for Congress. It was a key source for the government’s development of public policy. It was also a pioneer in citizen engagement: it was among the first of the government agencies to publish its papers online.
During its existence, it published over 750 reports on everything from acid rain to medical waste management to bioterrorism. Despite its successes, it was defunded in 1995. This move has been compared to “Congress giving itself a lobotomy” (Chris Mooney – Republican War on Science). Chris Mooney argues that defunding the OTA was not so much a budgetary decision as a political move designed to allow the reigning party to recruit partisan scientists who would “scientifically validate” their own policy goals. Readers can examine the reports of the various Presidents’ Councils on Bioethics and draw their own conclusions. Continue reading →
Submit your questions to the panelists via Twitter @PetrieFlom.
Please join the Petrie-Flom Center for a live webinar to address what health care reform may look like under the new administration. Expert panelists will address the future of the Affordable Care Act under a “repeal and replace” strategy, alternative approaches to insurance coverage and access to care, the problem of high drug prices, innovation policy, support for scientific research, and other topics. The panel will discuss opportunities and obstacles relevant to President-elect Trump’s proposals, as well as hopes and concerns for health policy over the next four years. Webinar participants will have the opportunity to submit questions to the panelists for discussion.
Joseph R. Antos, Wilson H. Taylor Scholar in Health Care and Retirement Policy, American Enterprise Institute
Lanhee J. Chen, David and Diane Steffy Research Fellow, Hoover Institution; Director of Domestic Policy Studies and Lecturer, Public Policy Program; affiliate, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University
And scattered about it, some in their overturned war-machines, some in the now rigid handling-machines, and a dozen of them stark and silent and laid in a row, were the Martians–dead!–slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain as the red weed was being slain; slain, after all man’s devices had failed…
Antimicrobial resistance currently causes an estimated 70,000 deaths annually. If current practices continue, the death toll is expected to hit to ten million per year by 2050. That works out at about one death every three seconds.
The threat isn’t limited to increased mortality. Anti-microbial resistance could cast medical practice back to turn-of-the-century standards. Turn of the 20th century, that is. Without antibiotics, the chance of infection turns chemotherapy and invasive surgeries into mortal gambles. During these procedures, the body’s immune system is subject to massive exposure and needs antibiotic support. Even ordinary nicks and scratches can lead to fatal infections without effective antibiotics.
So what is antimicrobial resistance? How does it come about? What can we do to combat it and prevent the “antibiotic apocalypse”?
Earlier this evening, the House of Representatives released the most recent draft of the 21st Century Cures Act. This is the fifth time I’ve blogged about the Act (prior posts here, here, here, and here), which has ballooned from a 200-page discussion draft in April 2015 to a 996-page draft version today. (The House has a 44-page summary here for those with more limited time.) To be fair, the Act now contains a whole set of provisions around mental health, substance abuse, and child and family services which were not originally part of the Act. The 21st Century Cures Act is the biggest Christmas tree bill I’ve ever had occasion to read.
There will be an enormous amount of commentary on different parts of the bill, so here are some quick thoughts on the new draft, focusing not only on the provisions which are likely to attract the most attention, but also on a few quieter provisions that are nonetheless worthy of scrutiny.
Some controversial provisions have been eliminated entirely or softened greatly. One of the most controversial provisions in the last draft of the bill would’ve “farm[ed] out the certification of safety of modified devices to third parties, circumventing the FDA altogether.” That provision seems to be absent from the new draft. The last draft, in creating a program for breakthrough review of medical devices, controversially called for the use of “shorter or smaller clinical trials” for those devices. The new draft asks the Secretary only to ensure that the design of such clinical trials is “as efficient and flexible as practicable, when scientifically appropriate” (section 3051).
Other controversial provisions remain, sometimes under new names. One of the most troubling provisions in the previous draft of the bill would’ve created a program for the use of “clinical experience” evidence in drug approvals. Rather than relying on the gold standard of randomized clinical trials, this provision “would[‘ve] require the Secretary to establish a draft framework for implementing” such evidence. The new draft keeps this provision but changes the term “clinical experience” to “real world evidence” (section 3022). To be sure, this provision gives enormous discretion to the Secretary to limit (and maybe even reject) the use of such evidence. But in light of recent high-profile clinical trial failures, most notably just two days ago, we ought to be concerned about claims that the FDA is too slow and imposes too stringent requirements on drug approvals.
Recently, the American Medical Association (“AMA”) passed an emergency resolution at its annual conference declaring gun violence a public health crisis and calling for both restrictions on access to firearms and increased research into gun-related violence. In its announcement, the AMA noted that it plans to “actively lobby Congress to overturn legislation that for 20 years has prohibited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from researching gun violence.”
The AMA’s decision to publicly take a strong stance on gun violence could have a substantive impact on the national conversation. The group represents one of the most powerful voices in health care policy. According to the Sunlight Foundation, the AMA is a “political powerhouse,” raising $1.3 million through its PAC during the 2014 election cycle and spending almost $22 million on lobbying in 2015 alone. To put that in perspective, the National Rifle Association — the nation’s foremost gun rights organization — spent $3.6 million on lobbying that year. Admittedly, the AMA — unlike the NRA — is a multi-issue organization, and it remains to be seen whether it will throw its financial heft behind this new position, but the fact that there is a powerful new party at the table has made some hopeful that members of Congress will start to think more seriously about finding ways to reduce gun violence. Continue reading →
The symposium, which was inspired by the wonderful recent PFC & Berkman Center Big Data conference, featured enlightening speeches by former PFC fellows Nicholson Price on incentives for the development of black box personalized medicine and Jeff Skopek on privacy issues. In addition we were lucky to have Peter Yu speaking on “Big Data, Intellectual Property and Global Pandemics” and Michael J. Madison on Big Data and Commons Challenges”. The presentations and recordings of the session will soon be made available on our Center’s webpage.
Thanks everybody for your dedication, inspiration, great presentations and an exciting panel discussion.
“Legal Dimensions of Big Data in the Health and Life Sciences – From Intellectual Property Rights and Global Pandemics to Privacy and Ethics”
Most recently this collection of seven datasets expanded from 13 states (CO, LA, MT, ND, NM, NY, OH, OK, PA, TX, UT, WV, and WY) to 17 states (adding IL, CA, AR, and AK) and added regulations from four federal agencies – Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Forest Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency. The research, which was funded in part by the Public Health Law Research program (PHLR), is meant to shed light on the regulations in place in the industry, and establish a baseline for how the industry is regulated.
Matt Samelson, JD
Matt Samelson, JD, a consultant attorney at University of Colorado Boulder Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment, spoke with PHLR about his work and the recent developments in this project.
On Monday, a group of over 50 members of Congress sent a letter urging the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to use a little-known statutory provision to take action against high drug prices. Their goal is laudable, and HHS and the NIH should certainly offer guidance in this area – but the existing law offers only a partial solution to the problem as the legislators describe it.
The members of Congress wrote to remind HHS and the NIH of a provision in the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act giving the government “march-in rights” to patents resulting from government-funded research. More specifically, the statute spells out a range of conditions under which the government may require a patentholder to grant licenses on reasonable terms to others to practice the patent. The government may require such a license where “action is necessary to alleviate health or safety needs which are not reasonably satisfied,” 35 U.S.C. § 203(a)(2), or where the benefits of the invention are not being made “available to the public on reasonable terms,” 35 U.S.C. § 201(f). The legislators argue that many drugs today violate these conditions, as even many insured Americans cannot access prescription drugs without incurring significant financial harm.
Although the “march-in rights” provision has existed in the statute since 1980, it has never been exercised by the federal government, even when it has been specifically asked. And some of these cases have been paradigmatic examples where “health or safety needs” are not being satisfied. A December 2015 study notes that in Bayh-Dole’s history, there have only been five petitions requesting that the NIH exercise its march-in rights. Three of those requests were based on high prices for drugs for HIV/AIDS and glaucoma, and one was based on a persistent drug shortage which may have caused the deaths of people with Fabry disease, a rare condition. (The fifth petition involved a medical device under patent litigation at the time.) The NIH denied each request. Some scholars argued that if the NIH denied the Fabry disease petition, where Genzyme’s drug shortages lasted for multiple years and caused great suffering, possibly including death, there may be no circumstances under which the NIH would grant such a petition.
Here is HHS’s own summary of what has changed and what it thinks is most important:
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and fifteen other Federal Departments and Agencies have announced proposed revisions to modernize, strengthen, and make more effective the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects that was promulgated as a Common Rule in 1991. A Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) was put on public display on September 2, 2015 by the Office of the Federal Register. The NPRM seeks comment on proposals to better protect human subjects involved in research, while facilitating valuable research and reducing burden, delay, and ambiguity for investigators. It is expected that the NPRM will be published in the Federal Register on September 8, 2015. There are plans to release several webinars that will explain the changes proposed in the NPRM, and a town hall meeting is planned to be held in Washington, D.C. in October.Continue reading →
Republican candidates convened last night for the first debates of the 2016 campaign. The presidential hopefuls disagreed on every topic they faced — immigration, health care, foreign policy, gay rights, the economy — all but one, that is. Their differences of opinion disappeared each time they were asked about the controversy over the recent release of an undercover video with Planned Parenthood. On the issue raised by that edited film clip, the candidates came together in a rare consensus.
All 17 — from Ted Cruz to Carly Fiorina — staunchly opposed research that uses tissue cells from aborted or miscarried fetuses. The candidates unanimously called for Congress to end its support of Planned Parenthood over its contribution to that research, with some like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal joining party leaders who would force a government shutdown over that issue. This, after Senate Republicans earlier this week failed to clear a procedural vote to defund. […]
This morning, the House of Representatives passed the 21st Century Cures Act by a vote of 344-77, achieving a truly bipartisan result in a difficult political environment. (I’ve blogged about the Act severaltimesnow, and the House Energy & Commerce Committee has a clear section-by-section summary here.) There is much to like in the bill (such as the increased NIH funding), much to be concerned about (such as some of the provisions abbreviating FDA review of drugs and devices), and much whose value will depend on implementation. It’s also not certain that any of these provisions will ultimately become law – the Senate has yet to even introduce its own draft bill, let alone vote on it or achieve a consensus with the House. But I wanted to use this post to draw attention to a new amendment to the Act that was introduced a few days ago and approved by the House this morning prior to the vote on the full bill.
Representatives Todd Young (R-IN) and Andy Harris (R-MD) introduced an amendment creating an Innovation Prize Program within the NIH. As the text stood on Wednesday (speakers on the floor of the House today suggested that some of this language is likely to change, if it has not already changed), it instructed the Director of the NIH to create the fund in service of one or both of these two goals: 1) “Identifying and funding areas of biomedical science that could realize significant advancements through the creation of a prize competition” and 2) “Improving health outcomes, particularly with respect to human diseases and conditions for which public and private investment in research is disproportionately small relative to Federal Government expenditures on prevention and treatment activities, thereby reducing Federal expenditures on health programs.” The Director is also given wide discretion to design prize competitions, including whether they involve a lump-sum award at the end or are parceled out in milestone payments along the way.
The nature of today’s most vital challenges and funding policies are driving more and more researchers towards interdisciplinary work. But what are the essential tools for those breaking the silos and leaving the comfort zones of their own disciplines?
Cross-disciplinary collaborations have become an increasingly important part of science. They are seen as a key factor for finding solutions to pressing societal challenges on a global scale including green technologies, sustainable food production and drug development. This has also been realized by regulators and policy-makers, as it is reflected in the 80 billion Euro “Horizon 2020” EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. This programme puts special emphasis at breaking down barriers between fields to create a path breaking environment for knowledge, research and innovation.
However, igniting and successfully maintaining cross-disciplinary collaborations can be a delicate task. In this article we focus on the specific challenges associated with cross-disciplinary research in particular from the perspective of the theoretician. As research fellows of the 2020 Science project and collaboration partners, we bring broad experience of developing interdisciplinary collaborations [2–12]. We intend this guide for early career computational researchers as well as more senior scientists who are entering a cross disciplinary setting for the first time. We describe the key benefits, as well as some possible pitfalls, arising from collaborations between scientists with backgrounds in very different fields.
Knapp B, Bardenet R, Bernabeu MO, Bordas R, Bruna M, Minssen T, et al. (2015) Ten Simple Rules for a Successful Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration. PLoS Comput Biol 11(4): e1004214. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004214
Earlier today, the House Energy and Commerce Committee released the most recent draft of the 21st Century Cures Act, in time for it to be marked up by the Health Subcommittee tomorrow. At 300 pages, the new draft adds back in a number of provisions that were excised from the previous, 200-page iteration of the draft. I haven’t had time to uncover all of the new additions just yet, but given that this is my third blog post on the subject, I wanted to highlight some of the ways in which this version differs (and doesn’t differ) from the last draft.
Yesterday, a new discussion draft of the 21st Century Cures Act was released, just in time for today’s hearing on the draft before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. At just 200 pages (although with some sections still “to be supplied”), this version is just half the size of the previous draft. As such, it is perhaps more notable for what it took out of the original draft than for what it added in. I haven’t had time to digest fully all of the cuts just yet, but in advance of the hearing this morning I wanted to highlight two significant deletions from the first draft and one potentially significant addition.
First, when I blogged in February about the first draft of the Act, I expressed excitement over the idea of a Medical Product Innovation Advisory Commission. The Commission would have had the ability to oversee the way in which agencies like the NIH, FDA, and CMS all interact with each other to affect the development and dissemination of medical products. A significant portion of my scholarship focuses on precisely these ideas, and I was hopeful that the Commission would make it into the second draft. Alas, it did not.
Second, the first draft of the Act contained a series of very controversial exclusivity provisions. Chief among them may have been the draft provision giving “dormant therapies” (essentially, new drugs for unmet medical needs) the option of 15 years of exclusivity. Alexander Gaffney’s Regulatory Explainer on the first draft provides a helpful overview, for those who are interested in learning more about this provision. But interestingly, this and other provisions relating to increased exclusivity are gone from the new draft. Now, it is possible that some of this language will reappear later, especially as the section of the draft relating to “Repurposing Drugs for Serious and Life-Threatening Diseases and Conditions” has yet to be supplied. But in the first draft of the document, the sections for “Repurposing Drugs” and “Dormant Therapies” were separate, so it is not clear that this is likely to happen.
A new Google Chrome extension puts the spotlight on conflicts of interest. The browser app, available for free download here, was created at the Hacking iCorruption hackathon event held March 27-29 in Cambridge, MA. The event, co-sponsored by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and the MIT Center for Civic Media (hosted at the MIT Media Lab) brought together individuals with a variety of backgrounds and skills to work toward the common mission of fighting institutional corruption, in this case by creating practical tools. This project was one of several exciting tools created at the hackathon (information about other projects available here), and it won first prize among the projects.
The Chrome extension, called Unearth, puts funding and conflict of interest information on the abstract page of PubMed research articles. Christopher Robertson, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Arizona James E. Rodgers College of Law and Edmond J. Safra Center Fellow who was a member of the Unearth team, explains the rationale for the browser extension in this Youtube video. In short, conflict of interest and funding disclosures are often placed at the end of a research article and are generally unavailable on the abstract page. This makes it impractical for physicians and other research scientists to pay appropriate attention to this important information. Research from the Cochrane Collaboration has demonstrated that research studies funded by industry generally describe “greater benefits and fewer harmful side effects” than their non-industry funded counterparts. Thus, taking the source of research funding into account when reading a new research study is critical. Although the extension currently only works for open access articles from PubMed Central, this includes several million research articles for which funding and conflict of interest information was previously much more difficult to obtain. Additionally, the developers plan on expanding the breadth of coverage in the coming weeks. Continue reading →
Biogen, a Cambridge, Massachusetts biotech company, announced last week that early tests of their new drug aducanumab, a monoclonal antibody, had shown impressive results in treating those with early stage Alzheimer’s disease. The drug significantly reduced the amyloid plaque buildup in the brain that is associated with Alzheimer’s.
In a very early stage safety test aducanumab slowed the cognitive decline and dementia associated with Alzheimer’s in people. On the Mini Mental Status Exam, a widely used measure of cognitive function, people at risk of Alzheimer’s who got a placebo lost around 3 points over a year. But those who got the lowest dose of aducanumab worsened by just two points and those who got a higher dose lost less than a point.
Biogen was so excited by the early results in 166 volunteers that it is going to try to go directly to a much bigger clinical trial of the drug. Wall Street was very excited too—Biogen’s stock price shot up 10 percent. […]
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) recently introduced a new bill, the Medical Innovation Act, which would require pharmaceutical companies who settle with the government after committing certain illegal activities to reinvest additional money into the NIH. Senator Warren views the bill as a “swear jar” for drug companies, seeking to target those who commit certain types of wrongdoing, including violating the anti-kickback statutes or defrauding Medicare and Medicaid, in order to increase government support for research at a time when the NIH’s budget has been falling. Scholars and researchers who have lamented the shrinking of the NIH’s budget will find much to love in the bill, and they may even wish it had gone farther.
The Medical Innovation Act would be triggered under the following set of circumstances: drug companies (1) who sell at least one drug whose annual net sales exceed $1 billion, (2) where that drug can be traced at least in part to federally funded research (the Act refers to such products as “covered blockbuster drug[s]”), and (3) who enter into a settlement agreement of at least $1 million with the government after committing certain types of wrongdoing, would pay an additional penalty. As a threshold matter, the Act will not affect companies unless they appear to have broken the law. But even where companies have committed various forms of wrongdoing, the Act would not affect smaller drug companies, those who developed their drugs without the aid of the federal government, those who engaged in minor wrongdoing (and therefore only have small settlements), or those who take the government to trial rather than settling.
Affected companies would be required to pay an additional fine on top of the value of their settlement, paying 1% of the company’s profits multiplied by the number of covered blockbuster drugs sold by that company each year for five years. Because the annual profits attributable to these companies are typically very high, even with the Act’s various carve-outs, Senator Warren estimates that if the Act had existed for the past five years, it would’ve provided an additional $6 billion every year to the NIH, a full 20% increase in its budget. Going forward, this number might be smaller, if some companies respond to the Act’s incentives by committing less wrongdoing (a positive development in itself) or taking the government to trial (a relatively unlikely outcome, but possible in some cases), but the total amount is still likely to be substantial.
At the end of January, the House Energy & Commerce Committee released a discussion draft of the 21st Century Cures Act. This document marks the beginning of the legislative phase of the 21st Century Cures Initiative, during which the Committee has held numerous roundtables and hearings and issued several white papers. The first discussion draft of the Act, clocking in at nearly 400 pages (even with several sections “to be supplied”), is incredibly wide-ranging, including proposals that could affect every stage of the innovation process.
The discussion draft should be of interest to everyone in the health policy field. One series of proposals is targeted at the NIH, including more support for the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences and for the NIH’s BRAIN initiative. Another set would act on the FDA, including one provision giving new drugs for unmet medical needs the option of 15 years of exclusivity. This provision, based on the MODDERN Cures Act, is particularly likely to inspire a great deal of controversy and opposition. The draft also contains a series of proposals designed to promote the development of new antibiotics, in keeping with President Obama’s recent focus on this issue. Its attention to the use of social media by drug companies and to the FDA’s regulation of health-related software will be of interest to many, as well.
The proposed draft is much too long to catalog fully in this brief blog post, although those who are interested in a broader summary might enjoy the 13-page summary of the Act put out by the Committee, the Sciencesummary by Kelly Servick and Jocelyn Kaiser, or Alexander Gaffney’s comprehensive Regulatory Explainer. But I do want to highlight one section of the draft which deserves more attention than it has gotten: section 2021, which would create a national Medical Product Innovation Advisory Commission.
In Part II of this blog on legal issues relating to the revival of phage therapy I discussed the US Supreme Court’s decisions in Myriad and Prometheus, which might present major obstacles to the patentability of phage-related technology (a more detailed analysis of the Myriad and Prometheus decisions is available here).
Yet, all is not lost. As indicated in Part II, Myriad does not directly affect the patentability of synthetically modified biological compounds and Prometheus would still allow patents on inventive applications of natural processes and correlations that add new features to “natural laws”. Thus there still seems to be considerable leeway for patenting within the area of page therapy.
One example, mentioned in a recent Nature article, could be the skillful selection and precise combination of different phages in order to attack one specific type of bacteria. Such selections, however, would face a tough battle to overcome the “additional features that add significantly more” and “not identical” thresholds set by Prometheus and Myriad. Another example with even better prospects for patentability relates to genetically modified phages that are – due to human intervention – enabled to target only specific bacteria. This technology was recently presented by MIT researchers at the 2014 American Society for Microbiology Meeting. The researchers led by Timothy Lu had genetically engineered phages that use a DNA-editing system called CRISPR to target and kill only antibiotic-resistant bacteria while leaving other susceptible cells untouched. The significant engineering and alteration of natural products and processes involved in such inventions would most likely meet both the Myriad and Prometheus standards.
Yet, while the USPTO has recently issued new patent eligibility guidance and the CAFC has begun to directly apply Prometheus and Myriad to reject patent claims in biotech cases (e.g. In re Roslin), many questions remain unsolved. In particular, it is still not sufficiently clear exactly how much modification is required to render a molecule or method sufficiently distinct from naturally occurring product and processes. And even if the patent-eligibility threshold could be met in extraordinarily circumstances, the claimed invention would still have to fulfil other patentability requirements such as novelty, non-obviousness and the written description-requirements. The threshold for these requirements, however, have been heightened in recent years (see e.g. KSR v. Teleflex (2007) , Nautilus (2014) etc.). Considering that phage therapy is almost a century old with a substantial common general knowledge and a state of the art employing routine methods, these crucial requirements might still prevent the patentability of many useful applications.