Diabetes drugs are badly needed, but rarely make it to market

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Diabetes may be a widespread disease for which millions of people need treatment, but a new analysis finds that developing new medicines has been a risky proposition for drug developers.

How so? Here are a few key findings:

Only 1 in 13 investigational diabetes drugs that entered clinical testing from 1995 to 2007 ultimately received regulatory approval, compared with 1 in 8 for all investigational drugs, according to a recent analysis by the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development.

The likelihood that a diabetes drug entering clinical testing would make it to late-stage testing was about 13 percent, compared with 21 percent for all drugs. But the chances of approval for a diabetes drug that entered late-stage testing was 60 percent versus 56 percent for all medications.

“There is a lot of demand (for new treatments), but this is a challenging market,” said Joseph DiMasi, director of economic analysis at the Tufts Center, which is funded, in part, by drug makers. He noted that a high percentage of medicines for which testing began after 2007 would still be in development, so outcomes could not be captured.

Read more: Can a digital health startup prevent diabetes in Medicaid patients?

To be sure, the findings underscore trends that have been fairly noticeable over the past few years, although the analysis appears to be the first attempt to very specifically quantify shifts seen through the prism of regulatory approvals.

Analysts say the most important challenge for drug makers that is reflected in the report continues to be the regulatory approval process, which has grown more demanding in the wake of a controversy in 2008 over the heart risks of a widely used diabetes drug.

At the time, a meta-analysis determined the Avandia pill, which is sold by GlaxoSmithKline, was responsible for an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. This prompted the FDA to place tight restrictions on Avandia and require other drug makers to run additional tests for similar heart risks, which makes the process more uncertain, although the agency later reversed course and lifted the curb on the Glaxo pill after reassessing the meta-analysis.

“That (episode) shifted the entire dynamic for getting a drug approved,” David Kliff of Diabetic Investor told us. “The regulatory process has become more onerous since then, and so the risk level associated with new drug approvals is higher than it has ever been. That hasn’t changed.”

And so, the Tufts analysis found that so-called first-in-class approvals for diabetes — which refers to new types of medicines — represented almost 30 percent of all FDA approvals. By contrast, first-in-class drugs for other endocrine disorders — those afflicting the thyroid or pancreas, among others — were 47 percent.

Also, of all new diabetes drugs that were approved by the FDA from 1995 to 2015, 15 percent received a so-called priority review designation — which refers to a speedier review process — compared with about 50 percent for other drugs.

There was at least one bright spot, though. The 61 diabetes and other endocrine drugs approved from 1995 to 2015 accounted for 10 percent of all new medicines approved by the FDA during that time.

This post was updated to note the FDA later reversed course and lifted restrictions on Avandia.