The FDA's Drug Review Process: Ensuring Drugs Are Safe and Effective

Article excerpt

The path a drug travels from a lab to your medicine cabinet is usually long, and every drug takes a unique route. Often, a drug is developed to treat a specific disease. An important use of a drug may also be discovered by accident.

For example, Retrovir (zidovudine, also known as AZT) was first studied as an anti-cancer drug in the 1960s with disappointing results. It wasn't until the 1980s that researchers discovered the drug could treat AIDS, and the Food and Drug Administration approved the drug, manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline, for that purpose in 1987.

Most drugs that undergo pre-clinical (animal) testing never even make it to human testing and review by the FDA. The drugs that do must undergo the agency's rigorous evaluation process, which scrutinizes everything about the drug--from the design of clinical trials to the severity of side effects to the conditions under which the drug is manufactured.

Stages of Drug Development and Review

1. INVESTIGATIONAL NEW DRUG APPLICATION (IND)

The FDA first enters the picture when a drug sponsor submits an IND to the agency. Sponsors--companies, research institutions, and other organizations that take responsibility for marketing a drug--must show the FDA results of pre-clinical testing they've done in laboratory animals and what they propose to do for human testing. At this stage, the FDA decides whether it is reasonably safe to move forward with testing the drug on humans.

2. CLINICAL TRIALS

Drug studies in humans can begin only after an IND is reviewed by the FDA and a local institutional review board (IRB), a panel of scientists and non-scientists in hospitals and research institutions that oversees clinical research.

IRBs approve the clinical trial protocols, which describe the type of people who may participate in the clinical trial, the schedule of tests and procedures, the medications and dosages to be studied, the length of the study, the study's objectives, and other details. IRBs make sure the study is acceptable, that participants have given consent and are fully informed of their risks, and that researchers take appropriate steps to protect patients from harm.

Phase 1 studies are usually conducted in healthy volunteers. The goal here is to determine what the drug's most frequent side effects are and, often, how the drug is metabolized and excreted. The number of subjects typically ranges from 20 to 80.

Phase 2 studies begin if Phase 1 studies don't reveal unacceptable toxicity. While the emphasis in Phase 1 is on safety, the emphasis in Phase 2 is on effectiveness. This phase aims to obtain preliminary data on whether the drug works in people who have a certain disease or condition. For controlled trials, patients receiving the drug are compared with similar patients receiving a different treatment--usually a placebo or a different drug. Safety continues to be evaluated, and short-term side effects are studied. Typically, the number of subjects in Phase 2 studies ranges from a few dozen to about 300.

Phase 3 studies begin if evidence of effectiveness is shown in Phase 2. These studies gather more information about safety and effectiveness, studying different populations and different dosages and using the drug in combination with other drugs. The number of subjects usually ranges from several hundred to about 3,000 people.

Phase 4 studies occur after a drug is approved. They may explore such areas as new uses or new populations, long-term effects, and how participants respond to different dosages.

3. NEW DRUG APPLICATION (NDA)

This is the formal step a drug sponsor takes to ask that the FDA consider approving a new drug for marketing in the United States. An NDA includes all animal and human data and analyses of the data, as well as information about how the drug behaves in the body and how it is manufactured. …