By Mason Weeda
Last month, legislation that would affect, among other things, FDA’s regulation of medical devices and the manufacturers of such devices took a considerable step forward when it was introduced and then unanimously approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee by a vote of 51-0 on May 21. Known as the 21st Century Cures Act (“Act”), the stated aim of the legislation is to modernize and personalize health care, encourage innovation, support research, and streamline the U.S. health care system to promote the delivery of better and faster “cures” to more patients.
In support of this goal, the Act would change the review of medical devices determined to be “breakthrough,” establish a third-party option for the inspection of medical device manufacturers, make changes to certain Humanitarian Device Exemption (“HDE“) requirements, institutionalize FDA’s ongoing efforts regarding the regulation of medical software applications, and loosen some clinical investigation requirements. Significantly, the legislation also indicates an ongoing Congressional interest in the restrictions FDA has placed on the dissemination of truthful and nonmisleading off-label information.
Breakthrough Device Pathway
The Act would support faster “cures” by creating a “priority review” pathway for those devices that meet the definition of a “breakthrough device.” These “breakthrough devices” include those that “represent breakthrough technologies… for which no approved alternative exist,” offer “significant advantages over existing approved or cleared alternative,” and are “otherwise in the best interest of patients.”
Upon a sponsor’s request, FDA would determine whether a device meets the “breakthrough device” designation using specified criteria. If a device receives such designation, it would be eligible for expedited review by a team of staff that will interact with the device sponsor. During this process, the Act would require FDA to “take steps to ensure that the design of clinical trials is as efficient as practicable, such as through adoption of shorter or smaller clinical trials, application of surrogate endpoints and use of adaptive trial designs and Bayesian statistics.” Likewise, the agency would also be required to “facilitate … expedited and efficient development and review of the device through utilization of postmarket data collection.” Although these are laudable goals, the Act does not impose any specific timelines in which an “expedited review” must be completed or otherwise quantify how much existing review times will be reduced.
Third-Party Inspections of Device Manufacturers
The Act also contains provisions that could allow FDA to conserve its inspectional assets and speed up approval of modified versions of existing devices by allowing for the use of third party inspectors to conduct the necessary establishment inspections. The theory being that creating a “quick” method to inspect facilities in these circumstances would promote the earlier availability of improved “cures.”
Under the provisions of the Act titled “Medical Device Regulatory Process Improvements,” Congress would require FDA to establish a “third-party quality system assessment” program, where accredited third parties would inspect manufacturers for compliance with the Quality System Regulation (“QSR”) (21 C.F.R. Part 820). However, use of such third-party inspections would be limited only to QSR inspections necessary as the result of submissions involving “device related changes” and would not be available in other types of establishment inspections.
Changes to Humanitarian Device Exemptions
This section of the Act would double the number of patients that must suffer from a disease in order for FDA to consider it a “rare disease.” Presently, the HDE pathway is intended to incentivize and encourage the development of devices to treat “rare” diseases or conditions affecting small patient populations when the device manufacturer`s research and development costs would otherwise exceed its market returns. It does so by significantly reducing the clinical data that would be necessary for the manufacturer to generate to support the efficacy of the device that would otherwise be required by FDA in a traditional marketing application. To qualify for an HDE, the disease or condition must presently affect fewer than 4,000 individuals in the United States per year. The Act seeks to encourage additional development making “cures” more widely available by increasing this number to 8,000 individuals.
In an apparent effort to “modernize” the technology involved in health care, the Act would create a definition of “health software,” which generally would not be regulated unless it:
- is intended for use to analyze information to provide patient-specific recommended options; or
- FDA determines that it poses a significant risk to patient safety.
This provision continues to allow FDA some flexibility as to how it may regulate software. The Act also would require the agency to review existing regulations and guidance regarding software, including the classification of software, standards of verification and validation, review of software, and quality system for software, among others.
The Act would also make it easier for sponsors conducting clinical investigations by requiring the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) to harmonize its requirements applicable to clinical investigations with FDA’s own requirements. This supports the Act’s goals by significantly reducing the regulatory burden imposed on sponsors who must presently ensure that their clinical investigations meet the often duplicitous requirements imposed by both HHS and FDA controls. The Act also would make it easier for sponsors to meet Institutional Review Board (“IRB”) requirements by allowing the use of non-local IRBs to review medical device trials, including Investigational Device Exemptions (“IDE”) and HDEs. Permitting the use of non-local IRBs support the Act’s goal of “quicker cures” by eliminating the “log jam” and delays sometimes associated with the use (and overuse) of local IRBs by giving sponsors additional options that are potentially faster than the traditional ones.
Lastly, and without limitation, the Act’s section on “Facilitating Responsible Communication of Scientific and Medical Developments,” provides that FDA “shall, within 18 months, issue draft guidance on facilitating the responsible dissemination of truthful and non-misleading scientific and medical information not included in the approved labeling of drugs and devices.” This provision appears to be in response to the Coronia Case (U.S. v. Caronia, 703 F.3d 149 (2d Cir. 2012)), which holds that representatives of pharmaceutical manufacturers have a right under the First Amendment to make truthful statements regarding their products, even if such statements indirectly promote drugs for uses not approved by FDA. The Act does not provide further direction on this topic, but Congress is clearly nudging FDA to update its position on off-label promotion which may affect medical device manufacturers.
It may be an uphill battle for Congress to agree on all topics involved in the 308 pages of 21st Century Cures Act. However, as reported by the House Energy and Commerce Committee Press Releases, the bill appears to have support from industry and consumer groups, which may help bring Congress together.