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FDA Approval and Regulation of Pharmaceuticals, 1983-2018

Educational Objective
To understand how drugs are approved for labeling and marketing in the United States.
1 Credit CME
Key Points

Question  How has the regulation of prescription drugs evolved from the 1980s to 2018, and what trends have occurred in drug approvals?

Findings  Approvals of new generic drugs have increased over time, leading to greater competition. Technological advances have been reflected in increased approvals of biologics over time. The number of expedited development and approval programs has expanded greatly since 1983, reducing the amount of evidence available at the time of approval and increasing uncertainty about the existence or amount of clinical benefit. These regulatory innovations have not clearly led to an increase in new drug approvals or to reduced total development times.

Meaning  While retaining policies that encourage efficient review, Congress and other government officials should also consider the implications of less rigorous clinical outcome requirements and whether the current complex array of regulatory programs should be simplified.


Importance  US law requires testing of new drugs before approval to ensure that they provide a well-defined benefit that is commensurate with their risks. A major challenge for the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is to achieve an appropriate balance between rigorous testing and the need for timely approval of drugs that have benefits that outweigh their risks.

Objective  To describe the evolution of laws and standards affecting drug testing, the use of new approval programs and standards, expansions of the role and authority of the FDA, and changes in the number of drugs approved from the 1980s to 2018.

Evidence  Sources of evidence included principal federal laws and FDA regulations (1962-2018) and FDA databases of approved new drugs (1984-2018), generic drugs (1970-2018), biologics (1984-2018), and vaccines (1998-2018); special development and approval programs (Orphan drug [1984-2018], Fast-Track [1988-2018], Priority Review and its predecessors [1984-2018], Accelerated Approval [1992-2018], and Breakthrough Therapy [2012-2018]); expanded access (2010-2017) and Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategies (2008-2018); and user fees paid to the FDA by industry (1993-2018).

Findings  From 1983 to 2018, legislation and regulatory initiatives have substantially changed drug approval at the FDA. The mean annual number of new drug approvals, including biologics, was 34 from 1990-1999, 25 from 2000-2009, and 41 from 2010-2018. New biologic product approvals increased from a median of 2.5 from 1990-1999, to 5 from 2000-2013, to 12 from 2014-2018. The median annual number of generic drugs approved was 136 from 1970 to the enactment of the Hatch-Waxman Act in 1984; 284 from 1985 to the enactment of the Generic Drug User Fee Act in 2012; and 588 from 2013-2018. Prescription drug user fee funding expanded from new drugs and biologics in 1992 to generic and biosimilar drugs in 2012. The amount of Prescription Drug User Fee Act fees collected from industry increased from an annual mean of $66 million in 1993-1997 to $820 million in 2013-2017, and in 2018, user fees accounted for approximately 80% of the salaries of review personnel responsible for the approval of new drugs. The proportion of drugs approved with an Orphan Drug Act designation increased from 18% (55/304) in 1984-1995, to 22% (82/379) in 1996-2007, to 41% (154/380) in 2008-2018. Use of Accelerated Approval, Fast-Track, and Priority Review for new drugs has increased over time, with 81% (48/59) of new drugs benefiting from at least 1 such expedited program in 2018. The proportion of new approvals supported by at least 2 pivotal trials decreased from 80.6% in 1995-1997 to 52.8% in 2015-2017, based on 124 and 106 approvals, respectively, while the median number of patients studied did not change significantly (774 vs 816). FDA drug review times declined from more than 3 years in 1983 to less than 1 year in 2017, but total time from the authorization of clinical testing to approval has remained at approximately 8 years over that period.

Conclusions and Relevance  Over the last 4 decades, the approval and regulation processes for pharmaceutical agents have evolved and increased in complexity as special programs have been added and as the use of surrogate measures has been encouraged. The FDA funding needed to implement and manage these programs has been addressed by expanding industry-paid user fees. The FDA has increasingly accepted less data and more surrogate measures, and has shortened its review times.

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CME Disclosure Statement: Unless noted, all individuals in control of content reported no relevant financial relationships. If applicable, all relevant financial relationships have been mitigated.

Article Information

Corresponding Author: Jonathan J. Darrow, SJD, JD, MBA, Program On Regulation, Therapeutics, And Law (PORTAL), Division of Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmacoeconomics, Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, 1620 Tremont St, Ste 3030, Boston, MA 02120 (jjdarrow@bwh.harvard.edu).

Correction: This article was corrected on January 15, 2020, for a missing legend in Figure 2.

Accepted for Publication: November 20, 2019.

Author Contributions: Dr Darrow had full access to all of the data in the study and takes responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.

Concept and design: All authors.

Acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data: All authors.

Drafting of the manuscript: Darrow.

Critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content: All authors.

Statistical analysis: Darrow.

Obtained funding: Kesselheim.

Administrative, technical, or material support: Avorn, Kesselheim.

Supervision: Avorn, Kesselheim.

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.

Funding/Support: This work was supported by Arnold Ventures and by grant support from the Harvard-MIT Center for Regulatory Science and the Engelberg Foundation.

Role of the Funder/Sponsor: The funders had no role in the design and conduct of the study; collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of the data; preparation, review, or approval of the manuscript; and decision to submit the manuscript for publication.

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