Watchdog Group Demands Removal of FDA Leaders After Aducanumab Approval

Alicia Ault

June 16, 2021

A high-profile, Washington-based consumer advocacy group is calling for the removal of the US Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) acting commissioner and two other top officials, saying that the agency's approval of the Alzheimer's drug aducanumab (Aduhelm, Biogen) was "reckless."

In a letter to the US Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, Michael A. Carome, MD, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, said: "The FDA's decision to approve aducanumab for anyone with Alzheimer's disease, regardless of severity, showed a stunning disregard for science, eviscerated the agency's standards for approving new drugs, and ranks as one of the most irresponsible and egregious decisions in the history of the agency."

Public Citizen urged Becerra to seek the resignations or the removal of the three FDA officials it said were most responsible for the approval — Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock, MD; Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) Director Patrizia Cavazzoni, MD; and CDER's Office of Neuroscience Director Billy Dunn, MD.

"This decision is a disastrous blow to the agency's credibility, public health and the financial sustainability of the Medicare program," writes Carome, noting that Biogen said it would charge $56,000 annually for the infusion.

Aaron Kesselheim, MD, one of three FDA Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs advisory committee members who resigned in the wake of the approval, agreed with Public Citizen that the agency's credibility is suffering.

"The aducanumab decision is the worst example yet of the FDA's movement away from its high standards," Kesselheim, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and Harvard colleague Jerry Avorn, MD, wrote in the New York Times on June 15.

"As physicians, we know well that Alzheimer's disease is a terrible condition," they wrote. However, they added, "approving a drug that has such poor evidence that it works and causes such worrisome side effects is not the solution."

In his resignation letter, Kesselheim said he had also been dismayed by the agency's 2016 approval of eteplirsen (Exondys 51, Sarepta Therapeutics) for Duchenne muscular dystrophy. In both the eteplirsen and aducanumab approvals, the agency went against its advisers' recommendations, Kesselheim said.

Advocates Who Backed Approval Decry Cost

Aducanumab had a rocky road to approval but had unwavering backing from the Alzheimer's Association and at least one other organization, UsAgainstAlzheimer's.

The Alzheimer's Association was particularly outspoken in its support, and, as reported by Medscape Medical News in March, was accused of potential conflict of interest by Public Citizen and several neurologists because the association accepted at least $1.4 million from Biogen and its partner Eisai since fiscal year 2018.

The association applauded the FDA approval but, a few days later, expressed outrage over the $56,000-a-year price tag.

"This price is simply unacceptable," the Alzheimer's Association said in the statement. "For many, this price will pose an insurmountable barrier to access, it complicates and jeopardizes sustainable access to this treatment, and may further deepen issues of health equity," the association said, adding, "We call on Biogen to change this price."

UsAgainstAlzheimer's also expressed concerns about access, even before it knew aducanumab's price.  

"Shockingly, Medicare does not reimburse patients for the expensive PET scans important to determine whether someone is appropriate for this drug," noted George Vradenburg, chairman and cofounder of the group, in a June 7 statement. "We intend to work with Biogen and Medicare to make access to this drug affordable for every American who needs it," Vradenburg said.

Public Citizen's Carome said the advocates' complaints were hard to fathom.

"This should not have come as a surprise to anyone," Carome told Medscape Medical News, adding, "it's essentially the ballpark figure the company threw out weeks ago."

"Fifty-six-thousand-dollars is particularly egregiously overpriced for a drug that doesn't work," Carome said. "If the [Alzheimer's Association] truly finds this objectionable, hopefully they'll stop accepting money from Biogen and its partner Eisai," he added.

“The Alzheimer’s Association is recognizing that the genie is out of the bottle and that they are going to have trouble reining in the inevitable run-away costs,” said Mike Greicius, MD, MPH, professor of neurology at Stanford University's Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute, Stanford, California.

“In addition to the eye-popping annual cost that Biogen has invented, I hope the Alzheimer’s Association is also concerned about the dangerously loose and broad FDA labeling which does not require screening for amyloid-positivity and does not restrict use to the milder forms of disease studied in the Phase 3 trials,” Greicius told Medscape Medical News.

Another advocacy group, Patients For Affordable Drugs, commended the Alzheimer's Association. Its statement "was nothing short of courageous, especially in light of the Alzheimer's Association's reliance on funding from drug corporations, including Biogen," said David Mitchell, a cancer patient and founder of Patients For Affordable Drugs, in a statement.

Mitchell said his members "stand with the Alzheimer's Association in its denunciation of the price set by Biogen" and called for a new law that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices.

Alicia Ault is a Lutherville, Maryland-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in publications including, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. You can find her on Twitter @aliciaault.

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