FDA Has No Right to Stop the Terminally Ill from Seeking Cures

(p. C4) Ms. Olsen notes that “today, about 40 percent of cancer patients attempt to enroll in clinical trials, but only about 3 percent end up participating. That means that the vast majority don’t make the cut, whether because they fail to meet the strict criteria, or a trial is thousands of miles from their home.” Many of those who don’t get these experimental drugs are the sickest patients because they are deemed “too sick to be useful for the study.”
Ms. Olsen argues that terminally ill patients should be able to access such drugs–at their own risk and outside the context of FDA-required studies–if the companies are willing to provide them, and the book’s title alludes to her proposed remedy: the state-by-state campaign the Goldwater Institute is leading to pass “Right to Try” legislation. The bills would allow terminally ill patients who have “exhausted all conventional treatment options” to access an experimental treatment if their doctors believe it is “the best medical option to extend or save the patients’ life” and “the treatment has successfully completed basic safety testing and is part of the FDA’s ongoing evaluation and approval process.” Insurers, critically, would not be required to cover the treatment–a significant hurdle, largely unexplored here, since such costs could be significant.
The think tank’s campaign has been incredibly successful, with 24 states passing Right to Try laws to date. Still, Ms. Olsen doesn’t present such laws as a panacea. She doesn’t expect experimental treatments to always–or even often–work for terminally ill patients. But she believes that some chance is better than the alternative. “If you have the Right to Die, you have the Right to Try,” Ms. Olsen writes. “And you don’t have to wait on Washington to secure it.”
Yet therein lies the book’s main shortcoming. Washington, it turns out, has a fair bit of say here. Courts have found that the FDA’s powers to regulate drug development are extraordinarily broad. Many changes Ms. Olsen champions won’t be possible without congressional action to revamp the FDA’s drug development process and find new ways of paying for experimental drugs that would make widespread access sustainable for patients, companies and insurers. These issues, though touched on, are not grappled with in detail.

For the full review, see:
PAUL HOWARD. “BOOKSHELF; Hail Mary Medicine; Patients spend their last days pleading with reluctant drug companies and the FDA to get access to treatments that could save their lives.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., Nov. 13, 2015): C4.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Nov. 12, 2015.)

The book under review, is:
Olsen, Darcy. The Right to Try: How the Federal Government Prevents Americans from Getting the Lifesaving Treatments They Need. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015.

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