At 15, Autumn Fuernisen is dying. She was diagnosed at age 11 with a rare degenerative brain disorder that has no known cure or way to slow it down: juvenile-onset Huntington’s disease.
“There’s lots of things that she used to be able to do just fine,” said her mom, Londen Tabor, who lives with her daughter in Gillette, Wyoming. Autumn’s speech has become slurred and her cognitive skills slower. She needs help with many tasks, such as writing, showering and dressing, and while she can walk, her balance is off.
Autumn has been turned down for clinical trials because she is too young.
“It is so frustrating to me,” Tabor said. “I would sell my soul to try to get any type [of treatment] to help my daughter.”
For patients like Autumn with serious or immediately life-threatening conditions who do not qualify for clinical trials and have exhausted all treatment options, there may be another option: seeking approval from the Food and Drug Administration for expanded access, or compassionate use, of experimental therapies.
Definitive numbers are hard to find, but studies from researchers, actions by drugmakers and insights from experts suggest that getting expanded access to unproven therapies for rare diseases is more difficult than for more common illnesses, such as cancer.
Even with experimental treatments on the rise, patients with rare diseases frequently face an unwillingness by drug companies to provide them before clinical studies are completed. Developing drugs for these diseases is an especially fragile process because the patient populations are small and often diverse, having different genetics, symptoms and other characteristics, which makes studying the drugs’ effects difficult.
Drugmakers believe offering a drug before studies are finished could impair its development and jeopardize FDA approval.
Companies working on therapies for rare diseases, especially smaller ones, could feel those repercussions acutely, said Lisa Kearns, a researcher in the ethics division of New York University’s medical school and member of the division’s working group on compassionate use and preapproval access. “There’s not as much investment in rare diseases, so an [adverse] event could frighten the already limited number of potential investors.”
Drugs that were not made available for compassionate use last year until studies were completed include Evrysdi, for spinal muscular atrophy; Enspryng, for an autoimmune disease of the optic nerve and spinal cord called neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder; and Viltepso, for certain patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy.