Europe vs USA: new drug product approvals in 2017

By Terese Johansson PhD, Consultant, NDA Group

It’s been an exciting year for new drug approvals! Many of the new drugs approved during the year address significant and meaningful needs or give additional therapeutic choices for patients and physicians. In the US we have seen a ground breaking approval in oncology that changes the way we look at and relate to indications; in addition the first digital pill has seen the light of day.

The following summary provides an overview of the key findings and an analysis of what the data means for the industry. The data is visually represented in an infographic below.



More approvals and more novel drugs

Last year there were a total of 103 new drug approvals granted in US and EU together that meet our selection criteria (i). Of these new products, 15 were approved only in the EU, 52 only in the US, and 36 were granted approval in both regions. It’s a large improvement compared to last year’s figures that showed 19 only in EU, 19 only in US and 36 in both regions, with a total 74 new approvals. In addition, 56 of the new approvals in 2017 were classified as novel drugs (ii). Our data show that the trend to apply for approval in the US prior to registration in the EU is, as usual, still a regular practice.

In the US expedited drug development and nonstandard review approval pathways are the new normal. In 2017 special approval and designation procedures like Fast Track, Breakthrough (BTD), Accelerated Approval and Priority Review was used for 37 of the new approvals, in many cases more than one of these approval pathway designations was granted per product. FDA has a higher rate of granting special approval status compared to EMA, 37 vs 10. One can only conclude that the policy groundwork laid by FDA in the past years to speed up drug approvals with the introduction of shorter nonstandard approval pathways has a clear overall effect on shortening the mean approval timelines.

Ground Breaking Oncology approval and the rise of CAR-T therapies

It’s been an exciting year for oncology with a total of 27 new approvals, so far 12 of these are only approved in the US and one of them were rejected by the EMA in 2008 (Mylotarg, gemtuzumab ozogamicin), however EMA now granted approval during 2018. A ground breaking approval was granted in the US where FDA (CDER) approved Keytruda (pembrolizumab) by Merck & Co Inc as the first drug ever where a biomarker (PD-1 (programmed death receptor-1) defines the indication (iii). The scientific rationale underpinning the Keytruda approval has effectively created a single therapeutic approach for patients with different tumour types, allowing extrapolation of the observed treatment effect to diverse tumours. The approval is likely to have implications for how the drug development process is pursued in the future, in oncology, but most likely also for other therapeutic areas as science progress.

Furthermore, also in oncology, the two first chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) therapies have been approved by FDAs CBER unit, its Novartis Kymriah (tisagenlecleucel, for the treatment of B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia) and Gilead’s Yescarta (axicabtagene ciloleucel, for the treatment of relapsed or refractory large B-cell lymphoma). Both drugs are currently under assessment in EU with Kymriah being granted an accelerated assessment by CHMP.

The Approval of a Pill with a Digital Sensor

Other noteworthy approvals from the US includes Abilify MyCite, the first pill with a sensor that digitally tracks if patients have ingested their medication (aripiprazole, for the treatment of schizophrenia, acute treatment of manic and mixed episodes associated with bipolar disorder and as an add-on treatment for depression) (iv).

Noteworthy Orphan Approvals

Several important ultra-orphan medicines have been approved in the US and EU, Mepsevii (vestronidase alfa-vjbk, for the treatment of the inherited metabolic condition mucopolysaccharidosis type VII, also known as Sly syndrome, approved in the US only) and Brineuria (cerliponase alfa, an enzyme replacement therapy for the treatment of Batten’s Disease, approved in both regions). With more treatments for orphan diseases hitting the market the debate on the pricing of these drugs intensifies: Drug developers are increasingly meeting the treatment demand from the patients and physicians but are the payers willing to pay the price? Drug developers will benefit from being prepared early on to develop strategies to ensure patient access to and affordability of their orphan agents.

The Birth of EU Public Hearings

2017 is also the birth year of public hearings at EMA. The EU Pharmacovigilance legislation enabled the Pharmacovigilance Risk Assessment Committee (PRAC) to hold public hearings during certain safety reviews of medicines allowing the committee and EMA to engage with citizens in the EU. Unlike the US, where public hearings for new drugs approvals has been going on for years, the system in EU focuses on post approval hearings in the context of urgent safety procedures / referrals and public hearings for new drug approvals is out of scope for now.

In the US public hearings of new drug approvals and how to deal with them can be an important part of drug developers planning for success. Drug developers aiming for US approval should consider building awareness of public hearings into their planning and ongoing relations with medical societies, patient organisations, physicians and other healthcare professionals. The perspectives from these groups can provide an important context for the safety and efficacy data submitted by drug developers and have additions to the severity and impact of a condition and the limitations of current standards of care. The Sarepta Exondys 51 approval in 2016 (for the treatment of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, only approved in the US, a review decision from EMA is expected during 2018) is an excellent example of a public hearing playing an important role in the approval process of a new drug. The approval showed the US Advisory Committees receptiveness to public perspectives as they evaluate the benefit-risk of new drug under review.

The Era of New Designation Pathways Continues

It’s also been an exciting year for drug developers in advanced medicines (e.g. ATMP in EU and Regenerative Medicines in US). FDA has during 2017 launched its new designation pathway Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy (RMAT) to further enable the development of these drugs. RMAT may be considered as analogous to BTD for regenerative medicines, with some additional advantages in comparison: it does not require evidence to indicate that the drug may offer a substantial improvement over available therapies. The RMAT designation gives drug developers access to increased meeting opportunities in a manner comparable to BTD therapies.

In EU, special designation pathways and approval procedures is not as common as in the US. In March 2016, EMA launched PRIME (PRIority MEdicines), the EU counterpart to FDAs BTD. Last year the NDA Group published data showing that most products approved for PRIME was from companies based in US and most of the companies also already had BTD (v).

It is too early to tell if RMAT and PRIME will add to the strategies used by some companies that see cumulative advantages and/or benefits from obtaining multiple designation pathways, a phenomenon used mainly in the US and known as ‘layering,’ or ‘stacking’ of special designations with the intent to increase overall product value.

Continued Negative Trend of First-in-class Medicine Approvals

The approvals for targeted novel, first-in-class mechanism of action drugs continue to decrease, a trend that has been going on for years. Is it a sign of drug developer’s increasingly competitive nature around targets that “work” in specific diseases? If this is the case, drug developers can expect the competition on pricing amongst innovator products to increase and become the norm from the beginning. Historically, price competition has been occurring later on during the life cycle. In an environment where it becomes increasingly important to distinguish oneself, drug developers should focus on creative clinical strategies for differentiation. This could include co-development of biomarkers and tests to target sub-populations, companion diagnostics and innovative designs for dosing and patient follow-up.

Small and Medium Sized Pharma Dominate

For the first time since we started mapping the new drug approvals small and medium sized pharma have surpassed big pharma (vi) – quite an achievement! In total small and medium sized pharma contributed with 51% of the new drug approvals, to be compared to 49% from big pharma.

NDA supported over 40% of the approvals in the EU

NDA had a strong presence in the EU regulatory arena and supported over 40% of the new products approved from 2013 to 2017.
To read the statistics of new drug product approvals from last year click here.

Data collection and disclaimer

(i) The data was gathered from the EMA and FDA official websites, as reported on the FDA and the EMA official websites on January 2018, The data collected contains drug approvals for new active substances (chemical, biological, biotechnology or radiopharmaceutical substance), new molecular entity, new biological entity, new drug combination, biosimilars, new active ingredient and vaccines, excluding only generic and duplicate applications from the data. As it is challenging to pull together data from two regions with different classification and reporting styles some general inclusion and exclusion criteria to create consistent indicators of the yearly trends in the EU vs the US has been applied. The above article provides an overview of the key findings and an analysis of what the data means for the industry. The data is also visually represented in an infographic. As experience tells us, the final number of approvals reported normally fluctuates for some time after the end of the year, as the Agencies go through their house keeping processes. There could therefore be some slight changes to the findings outlined in this report before the data is completely finalised. The PRIME analysis was based on publically available data from the EMA website and by mapping publically disclosed BTD.

(ii) FDA Novel Drug Approvals for 2017

(iii) First FDA Approval Agnostic of Cancer Site – When a Biomarker Defines the Indication. Lemery S, Keegan P, Pazdur R. N Engl J Med. 2017 Oct 12; 377(15):1409-1412

(iv) FDA approves pill with sensor that digitally tracks if patients have ingested their medication

(v) PRIME time for early designation pathways in Europe, T Johansson, Pharmafocus June edition 2017

(vi) The list of the top 50 pharma companies in 2017 was obtained from: EvaluatePharma 2017 Evaluate Ltd