FDA Says Changes Needed in Review of Medical Devices

February 19, 2010

Food and Drug Administration staff said they face difficulties in reviewing certain medical devices, hurdles that may call for additional regulations and authorities, even as the industry defended the current approval process.

At a public meeting Thursday, held to discuss possible changes to the FDA’s device program, agency staff said it is difficult to weigh new products under the accelerated review process used for products similar to those already approved.

It can be hard to tell if a new device is truly similar to an approved product or if there are enough differences to classify it as an entirely new product, they said. Difficulty inspecting devicemakers and a high number of proposed new products are also an issue.

“Developing clear definitions, guidance and additional authorities may be required,” said Heather Rosecrans, director of the FDA office that oversees such reviews, known as 510(k).

Devicemakers, industry consultants and investors said some smaller changes could improve the current process. They cautioned that a major overhaul could stifle innovation and prevent newer technologies from reaching patients and doctors.

FDA is weighing potential changes to the way it evaluates medical devices after a number of high-profile safety problems with heart defibrillators, contact lens solution and other products raised public concerns. Critics say the accelerated process is used too widely and can lead to problems after devices are sold.

Devicemakers are worried they could see longer review times, higher costs and other hurdles that may make it harder to get their products on the U.S. market. The threat of greater regulation affects smaller manufacturers as well as larger ones such as General Electric’s GE Healthcare and Siemens AG’s Siemens Healthcare.

Unlike traditional new drug and device applications, 510(k) reviews do not necessarily require clinical data on use of the device in patients. Just 8 percent to 10 percent of expedited device applications have patient data, FDA staff said.

Agency officials have said the meeting will help inform an internal task force charged with highlighting changes the agency can make with existing powers. An outside report from the Institute of Medicine, due next year, will focus more broadly on the FDA’s device division and what additional power or changes it needs.

Industry representatives were heavily represented at the meeting, something noted by the few practicing physicians and consumer advocates who also spoke.

Mark Leahey, president and CEO of the Medical Device Manufacturers Association, called the 510(k) process “one of the great successes” of the FDA, noting that “There are always areas for improvement.”

FDA staff said most devices are recalled because of manufacturing or design problems, something Medtronic Inc Senior Vice President Susan Alpert said would not change even if the agency implemented changes to the approval process.

The FDA could issue more guidelines for companies to follow and focus more on staff training, other industry experts said.

Diana Zuckerman, the only consumer advocate to speak at the meeting, said newer, slightly different products are not necessarily better for consumers and can sometimes cause injury and death. She cited recent problems with Baxter’s infusion pumps and massive recalls in 2007 of contact lens solution by Advanced Medical Optics, now part of Abbott Laboratories.

“In many cases these innovative devices are either not as safe as other products on the market, or not as effective,” said Zuckerman, president of the research and advocacy group National Research Center for Women & Families.

FDA officials have said they will accept public comments for the next month before making its task force’s recommendations public in June.

The meeting is part of the agency’s broader reevaluation of its device division under the Obama administration. After the meeting, Jeffrey Shuren, the new head of FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, said the agency could make some changes before the IOM releases its report next year.

Any substantial new FDA authority over devices would require action by Congress.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)

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