21st Century Cures Act

The passage of the 21st Century Cures Act (“Cures Act”) and revisions to the Common Rule (45 CFR Part 46) (“Common Rule”) in the last year mandated significant changes to informed consent laws.  As a result of these changes, sponsors of research (“Sponsors”), institutions conducting research (“Institutions”), and the institutional review boards (“IRBs”) approving research will need to review policies and practices involving informed consent.  As explained below, a recently published FDA guidance document makes a first step toward implementing some of these changes by permitting waiver of certain consent requirements for low risk research involving human subjects. Additionally, a recent ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court discussed below reminds investigators, Institutions, and Sponsors performing clinical research in Pennsylvania that state informed consent laws and common law must also be considered before conducting clinical research involving human subjects.  The following brief discussion provides some insight into how Sponsors, Institutions, and IRBs should take into account varying sources of law when determining when to require consent for research involving human subjects.

FDA Guidance on Waivers of Consent

On July 13, the United States Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) issued a guidance document titled “IRB Waiver on Alteration of Informed Consent for Clinical Investigations Involving No More Than Minimal Risk to Human Subjects” (“Consent Guidance”).  The Consent Guidance states that “FDA does not intend to object to a sponsor initiating, or an investigator conducting, a minimal risk clinical investigation for which an IRB waives or alters the informed consent requirements” to the extent that the IRB documents that: the research “involves no more than minimal risk;” the waiver “will not adversely affect the rights and welfare of the subjects;” the research “could not practicably be carried out without the waiver;” and “subjects will be provided with additional pertinent information after participation,” if appropriate.  The Consent Guidance is an initial step toward implementing Section 3024 of the Cures Act, which amended the Food, Drugs, and Cosmetic Act to provide FDA with the authority to exempt certain research of drugs or medical devices from informed consent requirements if the research poses “no more than minimal risk” to human subjects and includes “appropriate safeguards to protect the rights, safety, and welfare” for participating subjects.  However, current FDA regulations do not provide IRBs with the power to waive consent except in certain circumstances involving an emergency or a life-threatening situation.  While FDA’s guidance documents contain disclaimers that the documents, themselves, lack any authority and cannot be relied upon, Sponsors, Institutions, and IRBs should be confident moving forward under the Consent Guidance as it stems directly from authority granted to FDA under the Cures Act and is consistent with the approach taken by the revised Common Rule.  The FDA is expected to provide updates to its own human research subject protection regulations in 21 CFR Parts 50 and 56, which based on the Consent Guidance will include “minimal research” provisions similar to the Consent Guidance and the revised Common Rule.  These rules will also address new provisions regarding identifiable biospecimens, which are not addressed under the Consent Guidance.  Once these new rules are established, FDA has stated that it will withdraw the Consent Guidance.

Recent Case Law

While Federal laws and regulations shape many aspects of informed consent, state laws may impose additional nuances that providers must understand. For example, a recent decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will impact the manner in which informed consent must be obtained by physicians practicing in the state of Pennsylvania.  In Shinal v. Toms, M.D., 162 A.3d 429 (2017), Court held that physicians may no longer rely upon information provided by non-physicians to satisfy physician obligations under the MCARE Act, 40 Pa.  Stat. § 1303, et seq, which imposes a duty on physicians to obtain informed consent before performing certain procedures.  The specific law at issue was Section 504 of the MCARE Act, which creates a duty for a physician “to a patient to obtain the informed consent of the patient” before performing surgery, administering radiation or chemotherapy, administering a blood transfusion, inserting a surgical device, or “administering an experimental medication, using an experimental device or using an approved medication or device in an experimental manner.”  In Shinal v. Toms, M.D., 162 A.3d 429 (2017), the plaintiff asserted that Section 504 required Dr. Toms, the plaintiff’s surgeon, to provide all information and receive a patient’s informed consent personally in order to fulfill the physician’s duty for obtaining informed consent under the statute.  After an initial discussion with Dr. Toms regarding certain surgical options, the plaintiff later called to ask additional questions regarding different surgical procedures and was directed to a nurse to have her questions answered.  The plaintiff argued that her consent for the surgery was not sufficiently informed because the information provided to her about her surgical options should have been provided by Dr. Toms.  The Court agreed, and its 4-3 decision held that physicians in Pennsylvania must directly “disclose the information required to obtain informed consent.”

While Shinal involved consent for a surgical procedure, Section 504 of the MCARE Act also requires physicians to obtain informed consent  before administering an experimental drug or device.  This ruling will undoubtedly require many Institutions in Pennsylvania to change how informed consent is obtained from potential subjects in clinical trials, as it is common practice within the industry for physician investigators to delegate the informed consent process, or at least certain portions of the consent discussion with potential research subjects, to members of the Institution’s study staff.  Sponsors will likewise want to investigate the consent processes of Institutions conducting research on their behalf in Pennsylvania and review informed consent templates used by these Institutions to ensure they reflect the holding in Shinal.

The position expressed by the Shinal Court that only information provided by a licensed physician may be considered in determining whether the physician fulfilled his or her duty to provide informed consent appears to be unique among the states.  Nevertheless, it demonstrates to Sponsors, Institutions, and IRBs the importance of looking beyond FDA regulations and the Common Rule when developing and maintaining standard operating procedures and templates for obtaining informed consent.  Even if certain research may meet “minimal risk” rules at a federal level, Institutions must still abide by applicable state laws with regard to the requisite consent required before treating patients within the study.

On May 9, 2017, Scott Gottlieb, M.D. was confirmed by the Senate as the new Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”).  As Commissioner, he will be immediately responsible for shaping FDA policy on a number of current issues, including addressing and implementing several mandates stemming from the 21st Century Cures Act, (“Cures Act”), which was signed into law on December 13, 2016 with tremendous bipartisan support. The Cures Act contains over 200 sections that create new obligations for FDA; however, most pressing for Commissioner Gottlieb are three requirements that must be fulfilled within 180 days of the Cures Act’s passage (June 11th, 2017).

These requirements are:

  • Submission of a work plan to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions and the Committee on Appropriations of the Senate and the Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Committee on Appropriations of the House of Representatives for any projects, which will use funding from the FDA Innovation Account created under Section 1002 of the Cures Act;
  • Development of “a plan to issue draft and final versions of one or more guidance documents, over a period of 5 years, regarding the collection of patient experience data, and the use of such data and related information in drug development” pursuant to Section 3002 of the Cures Act, which is codified at 21 U.S.C. 360bbb-8c; and
  •  Publication of “a list of reusable device types” pursuant to Section 3059 of the Cures Act, which is codified at 21 U.S.C. 360.

Commissioner Gottlieb has a long professional history in the pharmaceutical industry working in both the public and private sectors. His firsthand experience as a former Deputy Commissioner at the FDA provides him with unique insights into the internal workings of the administration. As a former consultant advising on FDA policies to the pharmaceutical industry, Commissioner Gottlieb is also familiar with recent issues and trends affecting the industry, many of which are addressed within the Cures Act.  Despite having only one month to organize and address the mandates of the three above-referenced sections of the Cures Act, we believe Commissioner Gottlieb will likely meet these deadlines based on his prior knowledge and experience.

We will continue to monitor and provide insight on Commissioner Gottlieb’s activity as FDA Commissioner, and the implementation of key Cures Act provisions as they develop. For insight into how Commissioner Gottlieb has historically viewed key issues impacting the FDA, and mandates under the Cures Act, please view our previously published client alert.

On January 19, 2017, the United States Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) unveiled a new drug designation process for regenerative advanced therapies, an important first step toward implementation of the regenerative medicine provisions of the 21st Century Cures Act.  Products for which a designation as a regenerative advanced therapy (“RAT”) is obtained are eligible for accelerated approval under the 21st Century Cures Act, which was signed into law by former President Obama on December 13, 2016 with sweeping bipartisan support.

The accelerated approval provisions for RATs under the 21st Century Cures Act are intended to facilitate expedited review and approval of stem cell therapies and other cellular and tissue products for use in serious or life threatening diseases, which are currently subject to regulation as unapproved drugs. Under the 21st Century Cures Act, regenerative medicine therapies eligible for a RAT designation may include any “cell therapy, therapeutic tissue engineering product, human cell and tissue product, or any combination product using such therapies or products, except for those products regulated solely under Section 361 of the Public Health Service Act (“PHS”), and part 1271 of Title 21, Code of Federal regulations.”[1]

Under the 21st Century Cures Act, the sponsor of a product must show the following to be eligible for a RAT designation:

  • The drug is a regenerative medicine therapy;
  • The drug is intended to treat, modify, reverse, or cure a serious or life-threatening disease or condition;[2] and
  • Preliminary clinical evidence indicates that the drug has the potential to address unmet medical needs for such disease or condition.

Pursuant to the FDA website on the Regenerative Advanced Therapy Designation, a sponsor requesting a RAT designation for its product must make such a request either concurrently with submission of an Investigational New Drug application (“IND”), or as an amendment to an existing IND. Consistent with requests for fast track and breakthrough therapy designations, the FDA only requires that a sponsor describe the preliminary clinical evidence that supports a RAT designation, and does not require the sponsor to submit primary data.  Information that will be considered includes: a description of any available therapies for the disease or condition already in existence, the study design, the population studied, the endpoints used, and a description of the study results and statistical analyses.

The RAT designation process will be overseen by the newly created Office of Tissues and Advanced Therapies (OTAT). The OTAT will manage the application process for RAT designation, and will notify the sponsor within 60 days of receiving an application as to whether the RAT designation is granted. If a sponsor does not receive a RAT designation for its product the OTAT will provide an explanation in writing of its rationale for the denial.

A sponsor that obtains a RAT designation for its product is entitled to meet with the FDA early in its development program to discuss the potential use of surrogate or intermediate endpoints that may be used to support accelerated approval of the product. RATs may be eligible for accelerated approval based upon surrogate or intermediate endpoints reasonably likely to predict a long-term clinical benefit, and based on data obtained from a “meaningful number of sites” with subsequent expansion to additional sites, along with the collection of additional data in the post-market phase.

The implementation of the RAT designation process will enable manufacturers to begin to take advantage of the less burdensome review process enabled by the 21st Century Cures Act.  While some patient advocates have expressed concern that the availability of an accelerated approval pathway for regenerative medicine products may impede the development of robust evidence establishing their safety and effectiveness, and may ultimately result in patient harm, 21st Century Cures’ accelerated approval provisions are likely to be a harbinger of a new wave of regenerative medicine therapies that provide additional options for patients facing serious or life threatening conditions.

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[1] 21st Century Cures Act Sec., Sec. 3033(8).  Human Cells, tissues, and cellular and tissue-based products (HCT/Ps) are regulated solely under section 361 of the PHS Act and the regulations of 21 C.F.R. Part 1271 if all of the following criteria are met: the HCT/P is minimally manipulated, intended for homologous use (as reflected in labeling and advertising), is not manufactured by combining cells or tissues with another article, except for water, crystalloids, or a sterilizing, preserving or storage agent, and does not have a systemic effect nor is dependent upon the metabolic activity of living cells for its primary function. Therefore, if a product meets all of the aforementioned criteria, the HCT/P will still be regulated under 21 C.F.R. Part 1271 and will not be subject to regulation as a drug product.

[2] The FDA will use its standard definitions found in its Expedited Program Guidance as a guide to determining whether a product meets the required criteria, such as whether a condition is “serious or life-threatening” or whether a drug is “intended to treat a serious disease or condition.”