How Scott Gottlieb may transform the FDA’s approach to stem cells

The Trump FDA commissioner nominee Dr. Scott Gottlieb Dr. Scott Gottliebcould dramatically alter how the agency regulates investigational stem cell therapies. How might such changes unfold? There are potential upsides and downsides to  the seismic shift that could be in the offing.

Gottlieb has written in the past about his perception of FDA over-regulation of stem cells such as in this piece in the WSJ. There he made a number of assertions that signal his view at least back then that when it comes to regulation of stem cells by the FDA, less is more.

More recently, a speech he gave at an ISSCR meeting in Berkeley last year is much more balanced in tone than the 2012 WSJ piece. This quote from the Berkeley talk, for example, is balanced and emphasizes standards:

“Expediting the development of these novel and transformative technologies like gene- and cell-based therapies doesn’t necessarily mean lowering the standard for approval, as I believe other countries have done. But it does mean having a framework that’s crafted to deal with the unique hypothetical risks that these products pose.”

Still that WSJ article is concerning.

For instance, he and his co-author Coleen Klasmeier, both former employees of the FDA, strongly criticized a federal court ruling in 2012 that the FDA could regulate laboratory-proliferated stem cells as a biological drug. Oddly, much of the basis for their criticism was far broader than the reality of the court ruling. They suggested, for instance, that the ruling opened a veritable Pandora’s box of FDA over-reach potential that extended to all autologous uses of stem cells (lab-grown or not) and beyond, but that was not the case as the ruling was focused on lab-grown stem cells. Even so they made largely unsupported generalizations such as the following:

“If the FDA’s victory is upheld on appeal, then conceivably nothing done as part of clinical practice is beyond the agency’s reach.”

In the intervening years since the 2012 court ruling and the WSJ article, we have seen that the sky hasn’t fallen from the FDA having obtained the defined authority to regulate lab-expanded stem cells as drugs. In fact, oddly enough if anything the more time that has passed, the less inclined FDA’s CBER biologics branch that oversees stem cells has been to take action on stem cell biologics. It’s hard to view the FDA issuing less than one warning letter per year to stem cell clinics even as there are upwards of 600 of these clinics as a form of overreach.

From a scientific and medical perspective, there are good reasons to regulate lab-grown stem cells as drugs. The cells are known to change their differentiation properties, accumulate mutations and epigenetic changes, and undergo other significant alterations in the dish in the lab. There is also, perhaps more directly related to the FDA’s mandate on biologics, substantial potential for contamination of cells in a lab during proliferation.

Since 2012, another big change has been the explosion of adipose stem cell clinics onto the scene, which use more than minimally manipulated liposuctioned material to make a biological drug product via enzymatic and other steps. However, the clinics argue their products aren’t drugs and they generally do not have any FDA approval to market stem cells. Nonetheless such offerings are being sold at hundreds of clinics around the country. How would a newly minted FDA commish Gottlieb view these clinics? Through the same lens as the autologous, homologous bone marrow-based approaches? What about the clinics using bone marrow and amniotic cells in non-homologous manners that make such products drugs? Continue reading