Stem cells have been an endless source of fascination and controversy since Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1996. This month’s announcement of a cloned human embryo from a single skin cell  came on the heels of Sir John B. Gurdon and Dr. Shinya Yamanaka’s receipt of the 2012 Nobel for Physiology and Medicine for their work with induced pluripotent stem cells. Pluripotent stem cells can be embryonic or induced. Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) can generally be obtained from human embryos or by cloning embryos through somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), as was done for Dolly. Gurdon and Yamanaka demonstrated that pluripotent cells may also be formed by reprogramming adult cells to an embryonic state, resulting in induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells without having to use eggs or cloning, or destroy embryos. However derived, pluripotent cells are capable of differentiating into virtually any cell type in the human body. This imbues them with great promise for scientific breakthroughs and medical advances, but also raises serious ethical, legal and safety concerns about their use.
Less controversial are “multipotent” adult stem cells (ASCs) which do not involve embryos or raise as many safety concerns as pluripotent cells. ASCs are found throughout the body. Their ability to differentiate is more limited than pluripotent cells but is vast nonetheless. The NIH’s clinicaltrials.gov site lists some 4500 ASC trials as compared with 27 for embryonic stem cells and 21 for induced pluripotent stem cells. Recent announcements of new stem cell treatments usually involve ASCs, such as last month’s news that a toddler born without a trachea received a new one made from her own adult stem cells. It is therefore no surprise that ASCs have captured the attention of researchers, investors, physicians, patients and – increasingly – regulators, both here and abroad.
A growing number of physicians routinely offer treatments involving ASCs to their patients which can be performed in their offices. Autologous adult stem cells, used to treat a variety of conditions, are harvested from the patient, processed, and returned to the same patient. It is no surprise that moving ASCs from laboratories to physician offices raises complex questions of law. We consider one of the more pressing ones: to what extent can the FDA regulate a physician’s ability to treat a patient with that patient’s own stem cells? In the coming months, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments on this very issue in United States v. Regenerative Sciences.
On May 22. 2013, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee unanimously approved S.959, “The Pharmaceutical Compounding Quality and Accountability Act,” and S.957, “The Drug Supply and Security Act,” (now incorporated into S. 959 as an amendment). Congressional efforts to enact comprehensive legislation to improve drug safety and secure the nation’s drug supply chain have lingered for over a decade. The lack of federal uniformity has allowed a patchwork of state legislation to emerge, attracting the less scrupulous to those states with the lowest security. The issue finally gained traction among HELP Committee members when 55 people died and 741 more became ill after contracting fungal meningitis from contaminated steroid injections made by the New England Compounding Center (NECC). Committee member Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) stated that given prior reports of problems with NECC, this tragedy could have been averted but for a “shocking failure to act” by NECC, state and federal regulators, and Congress.
As NECC’s role in the meningitis outbreak came to light,gaps in regulatory oversight did, too. The federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) currently recognizes only two categories of pharmaceutical manufacturers: commercial pharmaceutical companies and compounding pharmacies. To qualify as the latter under federal law, the entity must make individual or small batch, patient-specific drugs and do so only with a physician’s prescription for that patient. Compounded drugs must be either be unavailable in the commercial market or needed in commercially unavailable doses or combinations. The FDCA exempts such compounders from its pre-marketing requirements applicable to commercially manufactured drugs. Thus, federal law clearly covers commercial pharmaceutical manufacturers, state law just as clearly oversees and licenses pharmacies but as the NECC case demonstrates, there is nothing clear about the responsibility for inspecting, licensing or otherwise overseeing compounders that do not fill prescriptions on a per patient basis.
Instead of compounding in response to an individual prescription, the New England Compounding Center made large batches of drugs for institutional buyers such as hospitals. Many of its drugs were commercially unavailable but some were knock-offs of marketed FDA-approved drugs – a practice which is clearly unauthorized. NECC’s business model was certainly not unique; neither was the limited and erratic response of state and federal regulators to complaints about the facility’s unsafe manufacturing practices. Congress knew that large-scale compounders existed along with concerns about their safety. Several members of the Senate HELP Committee had worked on curative legislation for over ten years, but made few inroads until the NECC crisis prompted the HELP Committee to shift from park into drive.
Google’s informal corporate slogan is “Don’t be evil.” Whole Foods is a Fortune 500 company with a net revenue of 10 billion dollar that prides itself on a commitment to social responsibility. Both companies have pledged to do long-term good in the world, even at the expense of short-term gains, and both are wildly successful.
If corporations can be profitable as a result of their commitments to social justice and corporate ethics, why can’t this doctrine be extended to the pharmaceutical industry? Someday, a company called GoodPharma might reach the Fortune 500 on the basis of a pledge to improve access to medicine, conduct international research trials in accordance with the highest standards of research ethics, engage in research on orphan diseases, publish negative research findings, promptly report information about adverse effects, and generally act as a model for ethical industry practices. If this business model hasn’t been explored, it should be.
There’s so much we still don’t know about the prescription opioid problem. The partial remedies advanced so far reflect this:
Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, which in essence define the problem as doctor-shopping patients;
treatment guidelines, which define the problem as doctors without expertise; and
crackdowns on “pill-mills,” which see the issue as physician corruption. Each of these diagnoses has an element of truth, but not necessarily enough to make the treatments effective.
One huge part of the problem has gotten far too little attention: the pharmaceutical supply chain where all these drugs start and along which they are distributed. Now, John Coleman, a former DEA officer, has given us a thorough and compelling primer on the supply chain, describing it and showing where the pressure points are for action. He is not happy about what he sees: DEA is overwhelmed, and too secretive with its data; and the distributors are too interested in profits and far too unwilling to police paying customers. But he also sees room for action and even hope. This article is well worth a read if you are interested in the overdose problem and how to solve it:
P.S. — One of the hopeful signs he sees was Florida’s legislation beefing up state-level monitoring and controls. This takes me back to the successful Wisconsin Cancer Pain Initiative in the 70s and 80s, which articulated the Principle of Balance in drug control and demonstrated that it was possible to have good access to pain medicine and effective control. In those days, David Joranson, the state drug controller, worked closely with DEA, using state regulatory authority to shut down docs and pharmacies who were acting outside the law. The possibility of history repeating itself is a ray of sunlight in the cloudy skies of this issue. (If you are interested in the story, here’s one place to start: Joranson, D., and J. L. Dahl. “Achieving Balance in Drug Policy: The Wisconsin Model.” In Advances in Pain Research and Therapy, edited by CS Hill Jr. and WS Fields. 197-204. New York: Raven Press, 1989.)