By Giuliana Miglierini
The repositioning of the United Kingdom as a global leader for clinical development of medicinal products can now benefit of the complete renewal of the framework regulating clinical studies run in the country. Announced in March 2023 by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the new set of measures represents the deepest reform of the sector in the last 20 years. The new package is based upon results of the public consultation run in Q1 2022 in partnership with the Health Research Authority (HRA) and the Department of Health in Northern Ireland, which collected more than 2,000 responses.
As stated in the foreword of the final document, which details the government’s consideration of responses to individual questions, the main objective of the reform is for the UK to capitalise on the opportunity offered by the country’s new position in the global clinical trial landscape. Furthermore, it represents just the initial step of UK’s new regulatory approach, which may include for example a wider use of real-world evidence, novel analytics and data tools. International collaborations are also deemed important, e.g. with the FDA’s Project Orbis and the Access Consortium (Australia, Canada, Singapore and Switzerland) and the International Council for Harmonisation of Technical Requirements for Pharmaceuticals of Human Use.
“Our world-first Covid-19 approvals showed how important it is to ensure that regulation is flexible and agile. This overhaul of the clinical trials legislation will do just this – it will move us away from a one-size-fits-all approach to the regulation of clinical trials and help to streamline approvals by removing granular and duplicative regulatory requirements”, said MHRA Chief Science and Innovation Officer Marc Bailey.
According to the Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay, the reform will make the UK more attractive for scientists and researchers. “These changes will help speed up clinical trials, without compromising on safety, and encourage the development of new and better medicines for patients. They come after the government announced additional funding of £10 million for the MHRA to accelerate the delivery of cutting-edge treatments including cancer vaccines”, he said.
The main goals of the reform
Patients are central to the UK’s reform of clinical trials. While efficacy and safety of new medicines under development remain the main target, great attention should be paid to reduce health disparities. To this instance, the MHRA announced the issuing of new guidance on how to ensure diversity of participants enrolled in trials, so to overcome imposed targets or arbitrary quotas. The improved attention to diversity would also support the delivery of trial results more adherent to the effective prevalence and clinical need across the population.
Flexibility and proportionality of the regulatory environment is another key objective of the reform. According to the final document, regulatory requirements should adapt to the current risk of the trial, and researcher should become subject to an overarching duty to consider proportionate approaches to clinical development.
Simplification of regulatory procedures is also expected, for example in the case of studies characterised by a risk similar to that of standard medical care. In this instance, regulatory review of the study protocol should not be needed anymore, substituted by simple “notification scheme” to enable approval.
As said, the attractiveness of the UK as a leading destination for international trials should be supported by streamlined and efficient application processes. This goal should include a new legislative action to integrate the regulatory and ethics reviews of clinical trial applications. Results from a pilot phase will be taken into consideration, as they proved possible to halve the approval times and cut the time from application to recruiting a first patient by 40 days.
All activities relating to clinical development should reflect the ICH Good Clinical Practice (GCP) principles for trial conduct. Regulatory timelines for approval are expected to compete at the international level, so to encourage sponsors to choose the UK as the preferred site to conduct multinational trials. According to the MHRA, the review of an application should take a maximum of 30 days in general, with a maximum of 10 calendar days for a decision to be granted once the regulator has received any final information. As for GCPs, compliance should also extend to service providers of electronic systems that may impact on patient safety.
Sponsors should also benefit from greater flexibility to respond to questions raised by regulators. In particular, the reform aims to amend the Request for Information (RFI) receipt, so that the sponsor has access to RFIs as they are ready rather than waiting for all requests to be made together.
The reform takes in consideration also the possible impact of incoming innovation, for example different types of trials and innovative study designs (e.g. decentralised trials). New guidance should be provided to set out specific details, thus avoiding any duplication. Guidance should be also provided on how to involve patients; family members or carers having a direct experience of the health problem in the design and conduct of a trial.
Transparency of the entire process should be supported by the compulsory registration of the trial in a World Health Organisation public register. A summary of results should also be published within 12 months of the end of the trial, and trial findings should be mandatory shared with trial participants.
Comments from the industry
“We welcome the MHRA and HRA’s commitment to work with our industry to codevelop new regulatory guidance and their pragmatic approach to patient & public involvement and trial diversity. We look forward to working with them to make the UK an attractive destination for clinical trials.”, said Richard Torbett, ABPI Chief Executive.
On 19 May, ABPI further commented from is blog the current situation of clinical development in the UK. According to the association representing the British pharmaceutical industry, enrolment to industry trials decreased by 44% between 2017 and 2021, while UK’s global ranking for phase III trials dropped to the 10th place (from the previous 4th). ABPI also reports revenues and cost savings to NHS England from life sciences companies of more than £10,000 for every patient recruited onto an industry clinical trial between 2016 and 2018.
In view of the release of the independent review commissioned by the government to former innovation minister Lord O’Shaughnessy, ABPI has identified three main steps necessary to support the international competitiveness of UK’s clinical trials sector.
Rapid and smooth regulatory procedures are at the first place, with the request not to delay from the 60 days target for combined regulatory and ethics review, comprehensive of the administrative processes of costing and contracting a clinical trial. Early scientific and regulatory advice and sufficient resources for the MHRA to clear the current backlogs and codevelop new regulatory guidance would be also important.
ABPI also highlights the often-experienced difficulty in recruiting a sufficient number of patients. The suggestion for the government is to take inspiration from UK’s leading position in early-phase (phase I) industry trials in order to improve investment in late-phase trial infrastructure. To this instance, health real-world data may prove important to support the search for eligible patients in a larger population.
According to the industrial representative, the UK is also lacking a nationwide clinical research dashboard to describe its performance in clinical research to global sponsors. This should include metrics on volume, speed, quality, impact, and innovation.