EHA-Patient Joint Policy Symposium

The EHA-Patient Joint Policy Symposium at EHA24 offered a day-long series of multistakeholder sessions on key policy and regulatory topics. In five sessions, mixed panels of hematologists, patient advocates, industry representatives and regulators treated an equally mixed audience to unfiltered views and lively debate.

Innovative therapies: access, benefit and expectations

The question hanging over the introduction of novel gene and cell therapies – promising yet costly – is how access and benefit for patients can be optimized, given the complexity, budgetary burden and uncertainty about the long-term effectiveness of these treatments. Speakers in the morning sessions set out looking for answers, and did some expectation management along the way.

Session 1: Access to treatment

Unsurprisingly, the panel members addressing the question at the heart of this session, ‘How to ensure patient access to innovation and affordability?’, did not come up with a unified answer. EMA’s Francesco Pignatti reminded the audience that neither innovation nor excellence are requirements for market authorization, which is based on safety and efficacy. Decisions on medical benefit and prescription are up to doctors and patients; the role of EMA is to make sure they can make these decisions based on the best available information.

The fact that a mandate has its inherent limitations was also evident in the two contributions about HTA. Patient advocate Zack Pemberton-Whiteley stressed that patient involvement in HTA must be combined with real influence on decision-making. EUnetHTA, represented by Anne Willemsen, considers input from patients essential, especially in the scoping phase, however efforts to involve patients have so far met with limited success (patient advocates in the audience mention lack of resources, COI issues and skepticism about their influence as factors). Willemsen strongly defended the separation between joint clinical assessments, as piloted by EUnetHTA, and national-level appraisals; Pemberton-Whiteley argued for reimbursement decisions to be made at the European level.

Market access specialist Joao Carapinha discussed concepts of ‘value-based’ versus ‘fair’ pricing. A believer in value-based pricing (VBP) – in his opinion, prices should not be fixed but always negotiable – he nonetheless warned policy makers against implementing VBP models, for lack of resources. ´Who pays?’ remains the inevitable question.

Session 2: Patient-reported outcomes (PRO)

Now that the importance of patient-reported outcomes is broadly recognized, the four speakers in this session focused on their implementation. Patient advocate Giora Sharf discussed the use of PRO in clinical trials. The perception of the impact of PRO tends to differ between doctors and patients, but there is little doubt that they play a valuable role in stimulating discussion between the providers and the receivers of care. Tom Coats (King’s College London) addressed the role of technology in hematology and cited “powerful studies” that suggest that PRO help make clinical decisions in cancer, with very good input even from computer-inexperienced patients.

Mark Skinner from the Institute for Policy Advancement in Washington, DC is equally convinced that “patients can influence the clinical pathway”, with the help of methodologically sound PRO tools, such as the one he presented, PROBE (PRO, Burdens & Experiences). Another insightful contribution was provided by Sarah Liptrott of the Haematology Nurses & Health Care Professionals group (HNHCP). Not only are nurses, who play a prominent role in the interaction between physicians and patients, convinced that PRO are beneficial also for physicians – positively affecting satisfaction levels, efficiency and time; HNHCP has also developed disease-specific PRO measures, such as for sickle cell disease.

Session 3: Managing the hype on CAR T

In front of an overflowing room – as befitted a session dedicated to a hype – Hermann Einsele (University of Würzburg) and Natacha Bolaños (Lymphoma Coalition) led a spirited discussion about CAR T-cell therapy. Patients, doctors, a nurse and an EU policymaker shared their optimism and concerns, in varying dosages, for the implementation of this revolutionary therapy.

To Brian Koffman, a doctor turned CLL patient who was one of the first 100 patients to participate in a CAR T trial, the balance is a positive one: while the side effects are tough and many patients get very ill, most recover fully. Ananda Plate of Myeloma Patients Europe agreed that CAR T is very promising, although in myeloma “it does not look like a miracle yet”. She called on all stakeholders to agree on a combined set of tools – communication, PRO/Quality of Life (QoL), health economics, protocol – that help achieve meaningful benefit for patients. Not knowing exactly what to expect from CAR T treatments causes uncertainty among both patients and nurses. As Mairead Ní Chonghaile of HNHCP asserted, “there is an awful lot of doubt and fear among healthcare professionals – all of them”.

Jan van de Loo, cancer expert of the European Commission, views health inequalities across Europe and pricing as the main issues. Acknowledging that Europe lags behind China and the US, yet faced with limited funding from Member States, the Commission is focusing its efforts on comprehensive uptake of CAR T in health systems, EU added value, partnerships and fostering innovation. The last round of Horizon 2020 calls will offer “lots of opportunities for cell therapy”, on top of the two specific CAR T topics in the most recent IMI2 call.

Regulating innovative therapies

The afternoon program of the EHA-Patient Joint Policy Symposium highlighted the need for adaptation of regulatory processes to facilitate true patient-centered, personalized medicine.

Session 4: Regulating personalized medicine trials

Leading the call for regulatory changes and flexibility was Ulrich Jäger from the Medical University of Vienna, member of EHA’s European Affairs Committee. New regulations are needed to enable the tailored decision-making and personalization of trials that are necessitated by the combination of high-risk patients, treatment failures, rare diseases and novel target or drug discoveries. Adaptation is also required from pharmaceutical companies, in order to make multi-drug trials possible. An encouraging example is Roche which is experimenting with 10-drug trials. Challenges for companies include financial and legal risks, unwanted stimulus for off-label use, and, as Johannes Pleiner-Duxneuner of Roche Austria put it, “the need to turn real-world data into real-world evidence” which requires the combination of databases.

Jan Geissler (CML Advocates Network) stressed the need to involve patients in all the difficult decisions on ethics, regulation and data protection. “If it’s all for the patient, why are we not asked what an acceptable risk is?” He also pointed out that while new regulation may be necessary, much can be done with existing mechanisms such as the Clinical Trials Regulation, Adaptive Pathways and PRIME. Clinical assessor Olga Kholmanskikh Van Criekingen of Belgian medicines agency FAHMP agreed with fellow panel members that new trial designs could help increase the use of biomarkers and personalize treatments, that big data is crucial, and that patient input “along the continuum” is important. She signalled a number of risks, however, including increased operational complexity and challenges to safety oversight, data integrity and transparency. (Significantly, a survey produced widely diverging patient opinions on data sharing and usage.)

There was agreement among the speakers that the data ownership question is crucial. Registries are seen as part of the solution, and hopes are that valuable lessons can be drawn from the HARMONY project.

Session 5: Raising the bar for drug approvals

The issue most hotly debated on this day was formulated as follows, somewhat provocatively, by session chair Ton Hagenbeek (Amsterdam UMC/EHA European Affairs Committee): “EMA is bound by its mandate, but as a physician I say: there should be a real medical benefit before a medicine can be approved.” Raising the bar for drug approvals, by adding a ‘real added value for patients’ criterion to efficacy and safety, was not something that could, or should, be expected of EMA, as Francesco Pignatti was quick to point out. Not regulators, but doctors and patients should decide on medical benefit. “A paternalistic approach of raising the bar for all is not the answer.” And: “There isn’t a single bar we can all agree on”.

Patient advocate Piarella Peralta (Inspire2Live) proposed refocusing the discussion to “raising the bar for patient care with quality of life”. This requires re-centering healthcare around the “magic combination of patients, clinicians and researchers”. Responding to Prof. Hagenbeek’s challenge that industry trials result in many ‘me-too’ drugs that are good for industry profits but of little added value to patients, Takeda’s Kelly Page acknowledged industry can do better. She insisted, however, that “our responsibility as industry is to run the best studies we can”. Page expressed confidence that “patient involvement throughout the development continuum can help ensure value-added outcome”.

There was consensus among panel and audience members on the need for meaningful involvement of patients in decisions on benefit, and for alignment of all stakeholders to determine patient-relevant endpoints. In a somewhat prickly exchange on the merits of ‘me-too’ drugs, however, patients in the room reminded everyone that patients are not a monolithic group with identical preferences. What is of negligible benefit to some, may be invaluable to others.