Speedy FDA Process Gets Observers’ Goats
Drug From Transgenic Animals Approved with Insufficient Transparency
Sometimes government agencies do the right thing and other times they get it all wrong. Then there are the times when they seem to be trying, but they blow it and they swear they’ll do better next time and you think: I don’t want to be a sucker but okay, I’m going to cut them some slack and see what they do next.
Such is the case with the Food and Drug Administration’s handling last week of the nation’s first formal application by a company to market a human medicine produced by genetically engineered farm animals—specifically, a medicine made in the udders of goats.
CAP Senior Fellow Rick Weiss covered science and medicine for The Washington Post for 15 years, and now he brings his investigative eye to science policy. From cloning and stem cells to agricultural biotechnology and nanotechnology, Weiss examines the issues at the intersection of cutting edge research and public policy.
The medicine is antithrombin III (brand name ATryn), a protein that aims to prevent blood clots in people with a rare but dangerous hereditary propensity to clot when they should not, manufactured by GTC Biotherapeutics of Massachusetts. More to the point, it is manufactured by the company’s transgenic goats, which contain a human gene that directs production of the anti-clotting protein in their milk.
It’s a cool approach. The only antithrombin III approved in the United States today is purified from donated human plasma, an unpredictable source that periodically dries up, leaving American patients scrambling. And compared to conventional means of producing biological drugs, such as gene-altered bacteria grown in vats, goats are stalwart and generous, churning out massive quantities in every glass of the white stuff. “Got Antithrombin III? You betcha!”
GTC’s application is the first of its kind, but others are on deck. The company, along with more than 20 other research teams around the country, anticipates a not-too-distant future in which transgenic farm animals will make many human medicines. Endowed with the right genes, a small herd of lactating goats could squirt out enough malaria medicine for all of Africa faster than you could sing a few verses of “Old MerckDonald had a Pharm.”
Problem is, federal regulators were not fully prepared when the folks at GTC anted up for a fast-track review. As I’ve written, it was not until September that the FDA released a draft version of its Guidance for Industry #187, which would codify how the agency will review applications to approve food or drugs from gene-altered farm animals. The agency accepted public comments through December and has yet to release any final guidance.
That made for an awkward situation on Friday, when an FDA advisory committee was asked to rule on whether the medicine made by GTC’s goats was safe and effective and therefore suitable for sale—without the agency’s veterinary center having even finished writing the rules on what constitutes an acceptable production process in animals.
Also embarrassing, if not plainly disingenuous: Agency officials had promised that its reviews of the first foods and drugs made in gene-altered animals would include public meetings at which they would discuss animal welfare, environmental, and public health issues openly. Yet Friday’s meeting had jurisdiction only over the safety and efficacy of the drug itself. After some hemming and hawing, FDA veterinary officials conceded that no public meeting dedicated to those other important issues was likely to happen for this first approval, in part because of statutory requirements that demand the agency move quickly on applications, such as this one, that have won fast-track designation. (The company’s hurry was not explained. In similar cases the problem has often been a shortage of funds and the need to achieve a key regulatory success in order to attract fresh venture capital.)
Friday’s presenters did divulge a few details about ATryn pharming. Company officials and FDA scientists (who have repeatedly inspected GTC’s operations), described all seven generations of the clot-busting goats as hale and healthy (indeed, the founder goat—the grand patriarch of this valuable line—was repeatedly described using the scientific term “handsome fella”). To prevent escape and ensure that their meat and medicinal milk never find their way onto grocery shelves, the goats are double-fenced and under constant video surveillance. They even have electronic transponders implanted under their skin so scientists can track them, if necessary, through the Massachusetts woods. A shockingly thin (read: single sheet of paper) agency-led “Environmental Assessment” concludes that the herd “is unlikely to result in significant effects on the environment.”
Several observers, including Greg Jaffe, director of biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, were rightly unimpressed.
“More information about the risk analysis surrounding the genetically engineered goats needs to be made public and scrutinized by independent experts before any product approvals,” Jaffe told me, calling the FDA’s work to date “a good first step.”
Nina Mak, a research analyst with the American Anti-Vivisection Society, raised animal welfare issues. Typically, she said, hundreds to thousands of animals are engineered before an acceptable founder is created. “Unintended and unexpected problems are frequent, greatly increasing animal suffering.”
Mak said it was “astounding” that the FDA would consider approving a drug from a genetically engineered animal when it has not even decided what the rules for such approvals should be. She is right. The only tempering factor is that a number of FDA officials all but conceded that they, too, were chagrined. “Ordinarily,” said the FDA’s Eric Flamm, “we may want to coordinate the two reviews” of the drug itself and of the engineered animals and their various impacts.
After the advisory committee was told, to some members’ open dismay, that it could consider only whether goat-derived ATryn is safe and effective in patients, it voted yes. A final FDA decision is expected by next month. By then the FDA will presumably have released a more finished document describing the rules for approving drugs from gene-altered animals (I predict a release on Jan. 16, the last government workday of the Bush administration), and agency officials will have declared that GTC’s goats passed muster, though it will be too late for the public to weigh in.
A lot of eyes ought to be watching to see if the agency keeps its promise to do better next time.
Rick Weiss is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Science Progress.
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