Use of the word "breakthrough" in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's expedited approval process could mislead doctors about the new drugs' actual benefits, researchers warn.
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The U.S. Congress in 2012 gave FDA the power to designate a drug as a "breakthrough therapy" if preliminary clinical evidence suggests an advantage over existing medications.
But a survey of nearly 700 doctors revealed that many tended to misinterpret "breakthrough." Doctors often believed the drugs were supported by stronger evidence than the law requires to achieve that designation, said lead author Dr. Aaron Kesselheim. He is a faculty member at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
"When people hear 'breakthrough,' it gives them an inappropriately elevated sense of what the drug might do," Kesselheim said. "It may give physicians false reassurance about the outcomes they might expect to receive when they prescribe it."
In the survey, nine out of 10 doctors chose one hypothetical drug over another identical one solely based on the "breakthrough" designation, even though both were taken on the same schedule, had similar side effects, and were equally covered by the patient's insurance.
In addition, 52 percent incorrectly believed that strong evidence from randomized trials is needed to earn the breakthrough designation, the researchers found.
"They thought when a drug is labeled as a breakthrough therapy it actually is a breakthrough, and that's not necessarily the case," Kesselheim said. "Many drugs labeled as breakthrough therapies are not true breakthroughs, because they don't provide substantially advanced treatment over what's already available."
The FDA designated 76 drugs as "breakthrough therapies" through April 2015, the researchers noted, but very few have had a major impact on the health of Americans.
"It would be great if all of those drugs actually were breakthroughs, but the likelihood of that is very small," Kesselheim said.
Dr. Robert Wergin, chair of the American Academy of Family Physicians, agreed there can be confusion over the use of the word "breakthrough."
"A lot of times when drug companies send me advertisements that say 'breakthrough,' I'm skeptical," Wergin said.
"When I first hear it, I think it's marketing. But if the FDA is using it, I don't think it's marketing. I think they should be cautious with it." ■
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