Simulated Side Effects: FDA Uses Novel Computer Model to Guide Kratom Policy

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb issued a statement on Tuesday about the controversial plant Mitragyna speciosa, which is also known as kratom. According to Gottlieb, kratom poses deadly health risks. His conclusion is partly based on a computer model that was announced in his recent statement. The use of simulations to inform drug policy is a new development with implications that extend beyond the regulation of kratom. We currently live in the Digital Age, a period in which most information is in digital form. However, the Digital Age is rapidly evolving into an Age of Algorithms in which computer software increasingly assumes the roles of human decision makers. The FDA’s use of computer simulations to evaluate drugs is a bold first step into this new era. This essay discusses the potential risks of basing federal drug policies on computer models that have not been thoroughly explained or validated (using the kratom debate as a case study).

Kratom grows naturally in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Malaysia where it has been used for centuries as a stimulant and pain reliever. In recent years, the plant has gained popularity in the United States as an alternative to illicit and prescription narcotics. Kratom advocates claim it is harmless and useful for treating pain and easing symptoms of opioid withdrawal. However, the FDA contends it has no medical use and causes serious or fatal complications. As a result, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) may categorize kratom in Schedule I, its most heavily restricted category.

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Innovation Gaps on Life Science Frontiers

Join us in wonderful Copenhagen at our CeBIL Kick-Off Conference: ”Innovation Gaps on Life Science Frontiers? From Antimicrobial Resistance & the Bad Bugs to New Uses, AI & the Black Box”. The  Conference marks the start of the Novo Nordisk Foundation’s Collaborative Research Programme in Biomedical Innovation Law which is carried out within a unique network of international core partners, including internationally renowned experts at Harvard Law School’s Petrie Flom Center, Harvard Medical School/Brigham & Women’s Hospital, University of Cambridge, University of Michigan, and UCPH’s Department of Food and Resource Economics (IFRO).

Leading international experts, including i.a. our distinguished Bill of Health colleagues Glenn Cohen, Aaron Kesselheim; Nicholson Price, and Kevin Outterson, will discuss legal, economic, societal and scientific aspects of selected Life Science areas.

Time: Monday, 5 March 2018 09:00 – 18:00 (followed by a reception in the Gobelin Hall)

Venue: The Ceremonial Hall (Festsalen), University of Copenhagen, Main Building, Frue Plads 4, DK-1168 Copenhagen K

More information on  speakers, agenda and registration is available here and here.

Extended background:

Biomedical innovation is experiencing changes of epic proportions. Rapid progress in many scientific areas, such as gene editing, pharmacogenomics, artificial intelligence and big data-driven precision medicine, has greatly advanced the promises and opportunities of the health and life sciences. Nevertheless, the total number of truly new and innovative drugs receiving market approval is unsatisfactory. At the same time, some of the more innovative therapies that actually could reach patients have become extremely expensive or ethically problematic. These new technological possibilities raise many complex scientific, legal and ethical issues affecting many stakeholders, such as medical practitioners, regulators, patients and the industry.

To support the in depth study of these developments, the Novo Nordisk Foundation has awarded a grant of DKK 35 million for a new Collaborative Research Programme in Biomedical Innovation Law (CeBIL). CeBIL’s overall aim is to help translate ground-breaking biomedical research into affordable and accessible therapies by scrutinizing the most significant legal challenges to biomedical innovation and public health from a holistic cross-disciplinary perspective. CeBIL is hosted by a new Centre for Advanced Studies at the University of Copenhagen’s Faculty of Law. The research is carried out within a unique network of international core partners, including internationally renowned experts at Harvard Law School, Harvard Medical School, University of Cambridge, University of Michigan, and UCPH’s Department of Food and Resource Economics (IFRO). Moreover, CeBIL will collaborate with a broad network of stakeholder organizations and international experts within law, economics, life science, medicine, sociology and pharmacy.

This Kick-Off Conference marks the start of CeBIL which opened its’ doors on January 1st, 2018. Reflecting the research projects that will be at the focus CeBIL’s research during the first 5 years, leading international experts will discuss legal, economic, societal and scientific aspects of selected life science areas and debate future challenges and opportunities.




Patenting Bioprinting Technologies in the US and Europe – The Fifth Element in the Third Dimension

By Timo Minssen

I am happy to announce the publication of our new working paper on  “Patenting Bioprinting Technologies in the US and Europe – The 5th element in the 3rd dimension.” The paper, which has  been co-authored by Marc Mimler, starts out by describing the state of the art and by examining what sorts of bioprinting inventions are currently being patented. Based on our findings we then discuss what types of future innovations we can expect from the technological development and how far these would and/or should be protectable under European and US patent laws.

The paper is forthcoming in: RM Ballardini, M Norrgård & J Partanen (red), 3D printing, Intellectual Property and Innovation – Insights from Law and Technology. Wolters Kluwer, but the working paper is already available on SSRN. Continue reading

“That I Don’t Know”: The Uncertain Futures of Our Bodies in America

By Wendy S. Salkin

I. Our Bodies, Our Body Politic

On March 30, at a town hall meeting in Green Bay, Wisconsin, an audience member asked then-presidential-hopeful Donald J. Trump: “[W]hat is your stance on women’s rights and their right to choose in their own reproductive health?” What followed was a lengthy back-and-forth with Chris Matthews. Here is an excerpt from that event:

MATTHEWS: Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no as a principle?
TRUMP: The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment.
MATTHEWS: For the woman.
TRUMP: Yeah, there has to be some form.
MATTHEWS: Ten cents? Ten years? What?
TRUMP: I don’t know. That I don’t know. That I don’t know.

Much has been made of the fact that President-Elect Trump claimed that women who undergo abortion procedures should face “some sort of punishment.” Considerably less has been made of the fact that our President-Elect, in a moment of epistemic humility, expressed that he did not know what he would do, though he believed something had to be done. (He later revised his position, suggesting that the performer of the abortion rather than the woman undergoing the abortion would “be held legally responsible.”)

I am worried about the futures of our bodies, as, I think, are many. That a Trump Presidency makes many feel fear is not a novel contribution. Nor will I be able to speak to the very many, and varied, ways our bodies may be compromised in and by The New America—be it through removal from the country (see especially the proposed “End Illegal Immigration Act”), removal from society (see especially the proposed “Restoring Community Safety Act”), or some other means (see especially the proposed “Repeal and Replace Obamacare Act”).

But, I am like President-Elect Trump in this way: Like him, “I don’t know.” I don’t know what to say about what will happen to our bodies or to our body politic. So instead, today, I will take this opportunity to point to one aspect of the changing face of access to reproductive technologies that has already become a battleground in the fight over women’s bodies and will, I suspect, take center stage in the debate over the right and the ability to choose in coming years. Continue reading

Biosimilars – In The Pipeline or Still a Pipe Dream?

By Jonathan Larsen, JD, MPP and Adrienne R. Ghorashi, Esq.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first biosimilar for use in the United States in March 2015. The approval came after several years of regulatory process development authorized by the Biologics Price Competition and Innovation (BPCI) Act of 2009, a component of the Affordable Care Act.

Biosimilars are highly similar, but not identical, copies of FDA-approved biologics, known as “reference” products. Biologics are used to treat a variety of diseases and medical conditions, including cancer. For many years, biosimilar development was thought to be too complex and too costly to advance, and exclusivity patents for reference biologics prohibited developers from marketing competing biosimilars. Now that those patents have started to expire, biosimilar development can finally begin, at a potentially huge benefit to patients.

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Are The FDA’s New Definitions And Labeling Requirements Good For Us, Or Just Empty Calories?

By Diana R. H. Winters

[Crossposted from the Health Affairs Blog]

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently taken three steps toward providing consumers with more and better information about food products that the agency regulates. First, in response to several citizen petitions, the agency requested comments on the use of the term “natural” on food labeling. Second, the agency issued a statement in early May indicating that “in the near future” it planned to solicit comments reevaluating how nutrient content claims are regulated — including the term “healthy.” And third, the agency issued a final rule on an updated Nutrition Facts label, with which large companies must comply by July 2018.

With each of these actions the FDA is attempting to ensure that information provided to consumers by food manufacturers comports with the latest scientific understanding about food components. Indeed, the updated nutrition facts label will provide important information and potentially allow consumers to make more informed choices about what they eat. The agency, however, has set itself a far trickier task in defining words such as “natural” and “healthy.”

Act Naturally

In the past, the FDA has repeatedly declined to define the term “natural.” The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) of 1990 required the FDA to standardize definitions for nutrient content claims, like “fat free” or “high in fiber,” and to limit the use of health claims, like “heart healthy” (21 U.S.C. §§ 343(r)(1)(A), (B)). The word “natural,” however, does not fit into either of these categories.

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What do doctors know about FDA drug approval standards and the breakthrough therapy designation? Less than we’d hope.

By Dalia Deak

A study published this week in JAMA examined how much physicians know about FDA approval standards for new drugs and the breakthrough therapy designation. The investigators found major gaps in understanding with regard to both issues, despite intuitive beliefs to the contrary.

For the study, Kesselheim et al. conducted a national survey of board-certified internists and specialists. They selected a random sample of 300 clinically active internists and 900 specialists in endocrinology, hematology, and infectious diseases from the American Board of Internal Medicine’s diplomate list. Of the 1,148 physicians contacted, 692 physicians, or 60%, responded.

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Regulating genetically modified mosquitoes

By Dalia Deak

Fears of spreading zika virus have renewed interest in the use of genetically modified mosquitoes to suppress disease, with recent attention focused on the UK firm Oxitec. Last week, the developing public health crisis around zika prompted the federal government to tentatively clear a small-scale field test for the first time in the United States, pending a public comment process on a draft environmental assessment submitted by Oxitec. It should be noted that a final approval for the trial will not be made until the FDA completes the public comment process.

The genetically modified insects, which are male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, are designed to breed with the female Aedes aegypti mosquito (primarily responsible for transmitting zika, dengue fever, and other diseases) and contain a gene lethal to their offspring. The female mosquitoes lay eggs but the larvae die well before adulthood. Oxitec claims that recent tests have shown up to a 90% decrease in the population of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, with a recent test in Piracicaba (~100 miles from Sao Paulo in Brazil) showing an 82% decline. Tests have also been conducted in the Cayman Islands and Malaysia.

In the United States, Oxitec is in the process of waiting for FDA approval to conduct trials in the Florida Keys. However, this is relatively unclear and uncharted territory for the federal government in terms of what group should be responsible for the review, and the decision for the CVM jurisdiction in this case remains hotly debated. Jurisdictional debate exists between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) and Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM).

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Jacobus and Catalyst Continue to Race for Approval of LEMS Drug

By Dalia Deak

The latest development in the race for approval between Jacobus Pharmaceutical Company and Catalyst Pharmaceuticals is a ‘refuse to file’ letter that the FDA issued to Catalyst indicating that Catalyst’s New Drug Application for Firdapse was incomplete. Both companies are competing for approval of slightly modified forms of a drug—3,4-diaminopyridine, or 3,4-DAP— to treat Lambert-Eaton myasthenic syndrome (LEMS). The winner will receive 7 years of exclusive marketing rights to the drug.

LEMS is an autoimmune disorder that affects an estimated 3,000 people in the United States. It is a rare, debilitating disorder that is marked by progressive weakening of the muscles that often begins in young adulthood. The drug in question was initially discovered in the 1970s in Scotland, with researchers in Sweden demonstrating its use in LEMS patients in the 1980s. Jacobus Pharmaceutical Company has been providing a free base form of the drug to patients with a LEMS diagnosis since the early 1990s at no cost (with the exception of postage), though the drug had never received FDA approval.

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Peeling the Onion: How to Promote Pharmaceutical Innovation and Access to Medicine

By Timo Minssen

As mentioned in my earlier blog post, I decided to conclude this year by publishing a introductory speech that I gave on April 14th, 2015 at the 2015 Broad Institute Innovation & Intellectual Property Symposium. The speech was part of the session “Bringing Therapies to the Patients” and introduced a panel-discussion with Entrepreneur and Professors of Law and Business about the failures of the patent system to support new therapeutics. The text is below:

Peeling the Onion:
How to Promote Pharmaceutical Innovation and Access to Medicine

Speaking about frustrations over the IP system in pharmaceutical innovation, sometimes feels like – to lend the words of the late German Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass – “peeling an onion:” Continue reading

UDI Adoption: A Necessary Step Towards Better Care for Patients with Implanted Devices

By Dalia Deak

In the United States, though many millions of individuals live with implanted devices, it may shock you to know that it is easier to recall tainted dog food than it is to recall a faulty pacemaker. This is due in large part to the lag of the medical device world behind most other industries in the implementation of a standardized system that can uniquely identify and track medical devices as they move through the supply chain to a patient. Such an identification system has existed for most products since stores implemented the UPC and Congress mandated that drugs be labeled with the National Drug Code, both of which were introduced in the early 1970s.

To remedy this lag, Congress, in FDAAA of 2007, tasked the FDA with the creation of a unique device identification (UDI) system. In 2013, FDA published a Final Rule regarding manufacturer labeling of UDIs, to be rolled out by class in the coming years. While the establishment of such a system would certainly constitute an important step forward, another number on a label will do little to enhance patient safety on its own. Rather, the value of UDIs is in the uptake of the identifier at each point in a medical device’s life—from manufacturer to distributor to provider to patient to payer (see this report I co-authored on this very issue). Continue reading

Bureaucracy Can Save Lives – The Legacy of Dr. Frances Kelsey

By Robert Field

What adjective would most people associate with the word “bureaucrat”? For many, it would be “inefficient,” “inept,” or “incompetent.” But another that is just as descriptive is “lifesaving.”

Dr. Frances Kelsey, who died this month at the age of 101, was celebrated as an American hero for her work as a medical officer at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). She saved thousands of lives and prevented untold suffering by using techniques that earn bureaucrats a bad name, delay and obstruction, to keep the drug thalidomide from reaching the market in the United States in 1961.

Thalidomide is a sedative that had been approved for sale in Europe four years earlier and was prescribed for morning sickness during pregnancy. The American manufacturer, Richardson-Merrell, saw a large potential market in the United States. However, Dr. Kelsey, who was assigned to review its application for marketing approval, was troubled by questionable safety data. The law in effect in 1961 required that she issue a decision within 60 days, but she was able to buy more time by asking for additional information.

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The FDA’s Determination On Artificial Trans Fat: A Long Time Coming

By Diana R. H. Winters

[cross-posted at Health Affairs Blog]
On June 16, 2015, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released its final determination withdrawing the generally recognized as safe (GRAS) designation for partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), which are the main source of artificial trans fat in processed foods. The agency gave the food industry three years, until June 18, 2018, to phase out the use of PHOs. The FDA’s order was expected based on the agency’s tentative determination that PHOs were no longer GRAS, published in November 2013.

This action is a milestone in — although perhaps not the culmination of — the FDA’s decades-long attempt to grapple with increasing scientific recognition that trans fat poses a serious health risk to consumers. The action is also unusual, in that it is quite rare for the FDA to withdraw GRAS status from a food product, a move that most likely will mean the ingredient is no longer used in foods.

What is not unusual, unfortunately, is the lengthy timeframe of this regulatory trajectory in the context of FDA action. To be sure, this action will lead to a dramatic reduction in the use of PHOs in processed foods, which in turn, will lead Americans to eat less trans fat – a good thing. What this regulatory action does not do, however, is speak to problems with the GRAS process as a whole.

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Tomorrow (1/29): A “Natural” Experiment: Consumer Confusion and Food Claims, a lecture by Efthimios Parasidis

A “Natural” Experiment: Consumer Confusion and Food Claims, a lecture by Efthimios Parasidis

Thursday, January 29, 2015, 12: 00 PM

Wasserstein Hall, Milstein West B                               Harvard Law School, 1585 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA [Map]

This event is free and open to the public. Lunch will be served.

Efthimios Parasidis is Associate Professor at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and holds a joint appointment with the College of Public Health. He is an inaugural member of College of Medicine’s Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities. His scholarship focuses on the regulation of medical products and human subjects research, the interplay between health law and intellectual property, and the application of health information technology to public health policy. He has published in leading law reviews and health policy journals, is co-authoring a casebook, and has a book under contract with Oxford University Press. The Greenwall Foundation awarded Professor Parasidis a Faculty Scholar in Bioethics fellowship for 2014-2017.

The lecture will be followed by an audience question and answer session moderated by Jacob Gersen, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and Director of the Food Law Lab.

Cosponsored by the Food Law Lab and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School.

European Responses to the Ebola Crisis: Initiatives at the European Medicines Agency (EMA)

By Timo Minssen

The current Ebola outbreak already attracted much attention on “Bill of Health” resulting in some excellent blogs on a horrible topic.

While it is evident that the current health crisis requires both immediate responses and more sustainable changes in health care policy, research and regulation, medicines regulators are collaborating internationally to find innovative solutions enhancing evaluation of and access to potential new medicines to fight Ebola outbreaks. In a statement announced by the International Coalition of Medicines Regulatory Authorities (ICMRA) in September 2014, regulators around the world led by the FDA and the EMA have vowed to collaborate in supporting accelerated evaluation of experimental new drugs to treat Ebola virus infections and say they will encourage submission of regulatory dossiers. This clearly backs up the World Health Organization’s (WHO) decision to test experimental Ebola treatments in infected patients in the current outbreak region in West Africa and to speed up the development of vaccines.

In the following I would like to summarize and discuss some of the recent European responses to the current crisis starting with an overview on recent initiatives at the EMA.

Like its US counterpart, the EMA leads a close and consistent dialogue with public and private developers of Ebola products and spends much effort in reviewing available information on the various experimental Ebola treatments currently under development. These experimental drugs range from experimental antivirals or vaccines based on the adenovirus or stomatitis vaccine to experimental therapies based on mono- and polyclonal antibody technologies. One of these unapproved antibody combination drugs – MAPP Biologicals’  ZMapp – has already been used in some care workers affected by Ebola. Other experimental drugs that are currently reviewed by the EMA include Biocryst’s BCX 4430, Fab’entech’s Hyperimmune horse sera, Sarepta’s AVI-7537, Toyama Chemicals and MediVector’s Favipiravir and Tekmira’s TKM-Ebola.

Other companies such as Bavarian Nordic  and the Russian Mikrogen are close to follow.

In addition to monitoring experimental drugs and enhancing global collaboration, the European Medicines Agency has like the FDA initiated several activities in order to support and speed up the development of these drugs towards market approval.  Continue reading

Upcoming Event: Emerging Issues and New Frontiers in FDA Regulation

lab_colored_beakers_slideEmerging Issues and New Frontiers for FDA Regulation

October 20, 2014 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM

Alston & Bird, The Atlantic Building, 950 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004-1404

Registration is now open online. A limited number of free seats are available to Harvard affiliates. For more information or to request a seat, please email us at by October 7th.

Please join the Food and Drug Law Institute and the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School for an academic symposium on cutting-edge legal and regulatory issues facing FDA.  Leading academics will present papers on mobile health, stem cells, personalized medicine, and other novel medical product issues, as well as food regulation.  Papers will be available to registered attendees in advance, and will be published in an upcoming issue of the Food and Drug Law Journal.

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10/20/14: Emerging Issues and New Frontiers for FDA Regulation

lab_colored_beakers_slideEmerging Issues and New Frontiers for FDA Regulation

October 20, 2014 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM

Alston & Bird, The Atlantic Building, 950 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004-1404

Symposium co-sponsored by the Food and Drug Law Institute (FDLI) and the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School.

Please join the Food and Drug Law Institute and the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School for an academic symposium on cutting-edge legal and regulatory issues facing FDA.  Leading academics will present papers on mobile health, stem cells, personalized medicine, and other novel medical product issues, as well as food regulation.  Papers will be available to registered attendees in advance, and will be published in an upcoming issue of the Food and Drug Law Journal.

Registration is now open online. A limited number of free seats are available to Harvard affiliates. For more information or to request a seat, please email us at

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House Hearing on Regulation of Laboratory-Developed Tests Displays More Consensus Than Disagreement

By Rachel Sachs

The Health Subcommittee of the House Energy & Commerce Committee held a hearing last week on the FDA’s proposed draft guidance regarding laboratory-developed tests (LDTs), as part of its “21st Century Cures” initiative. The hearing, which can be viewed online (here and here), featured representatives from the FDA, industry, and research organizations. And although the various panelists offered differing views on the propriety of the FDA’s decision to begin exercising its regulatory authority over LDTs, there seemed to be more agreement than disagreement among the panelists.

Most interestingly, as Representative Henry Waxman pointed out toward the end of the hearing, “[no]body on the panel [is] arguing that there shouldn’t be a very careful scrutiny of these tests. It seems like the question is who should do it: CLIA or the FDA.” Representative Waxman’s subsequent colloquy with Harvard Medical School Professor Christopher Newton-Cheh on this point particularly helped to differentiate the historical roles of CMS and the FDA in this space. But even those panelists who opposed the FDA’s involvement seemed supportive of expanding CMS’ authority under CLIA to conduct clinical validity analyses. (Anyone interested in the administrative law aspects of this issue should know that problems of shared regulatory jurisdiction have recently received increased scholarly attention, with Jody Freeman and Jim Rossi providing a particularly thorough treatment of the issue in their recent article, Agency Coordination in Shared Regulatory Space.)  Continue reading

Questioning Quorn

By Diana R. H. Winters
[Cross-posted on HealthLawProfBlog.]

There was an article a couple of weeks ago in the New York Times about “engineered foods,” and how “a handful of high-tech start-ups are out to revolutionize the food system by engineering ‘meat’ and ‘eggs’ from pulverized plant compounds or cultured snippets of animal tissue.”   The author discussed some of the business models, interviewed some of the entrepreneurs, and contemplated some of the implications of “Food 2.0.” The concerns she noted involved the nutritional impact of these foods, and the possibility of resource-intensive production.

But what sort of screening will these food products go through before they enter the food supply? How will FDA vet these new foodstuffs for toxicity or allergenic properties? It won’t. Manufacturers can self-affirm that food products are safe, based on their own studies, and market them on that basis with no prior FDA approval. This is the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) route to marketability. A manufacturer could also choose to submit to the formal food additive approval process, which is extremely time-consuming, but considering the breadth of the GRAS exception, they probably won’t. Many more GRAS notifications are filed per year than food additive petitions.  Continue reading

Public Health Trumps Corporate Speech

By David Orentlicher
[Ed Note: Cross-posted at HealthLawProfBlog.]

Reversing its previous deference to corporate speech interests, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit came down in favor of consumer protection in a July 29 decision. In American Meat Institute v. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, the court upheld a federal government regulation requiring meat companies to disclose the countries of origin for their products. If your beef comes from Argentina or Canada, you will know that from its label.

More importantly, the court gave the Food and Drug Administration greater freedom to reduce tobacco use in the United States. In explaining its reasoning, the court repudiated the logic of an earlier decision by the court that rejected the FDA’s graphic warnings for cigarette packs. According to the meat labeling opinion, the cigarette warning decision did not allow sufficient leeway for the government to mandate warnings or other informational disclosures to consumers.

Perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court will restore the D.C. Circuit’s previous balance, but for now, the tide has turned in favor of the public’s health.