Liz Szabo, Kaiser Health News
Marlene McCarthy’s breast cancer has grown relentlessly over the past seven years, spreading painfully through her bones and making it impossible to walk without a cane.
Although the 73-year-old knows there’s no cure for her disease, she wants researchers to do better. It’s been years, she said, since she has found a drug that has actually helped. McCarthy said she’s frustrated that the Food and Drug Administration is approving cancer drugs without proof that they cure patients or help them live longer.
Pushed by patient advocates who want earlier access to medications, the Food and Drug Administration has approved a flurry of oncology drugs in recent years, giving some people with cancer a renewed sense of hope and an array of expensive new options. A few of these drugs have been clear home runs, allowing patients with limited life expectancies to live for years.
Many more drugs, however, have offered patients only marginal benefits, with no evidence that they improve survival or quality of life, said Dr. Vinay Prasad, assistant professor of medicine at the Oregon Health and Sciences University, who has written extensively about the FDA’s approval process for cancer drugs.
The FDA wants to give patients the chance to benefit as soon as possible, rather than waiting for definitive proof of improved survival, Pazdur said. In some cases, the FDA requires pharmaceutical companies to perform long-term studies after drugs are approved, to measure whether drugs live up to their early promise.
But many of these studies never provide an answer, Zuckerman said. Once a drug is approved and is available to anyone, patients have no incentive to participate in a clinical trial. So studies can end with no clear conclusion.
Unless the FDA requires companies to provide survival data before approving a drug, “we may never have answers,” Zuckerman said. “We will have all of these expensive drugs on the market and we will never have the information we need about how well they work or even how safe they are.”
President Donald Trump has vowed to cut regulations at the FDA and recently told pharmaceutical industry leaders that he wants to further speed up the drug approval process.
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