The ABCs of DCTs: New FDA Guidance Provides Recommendations for the Conduct of Decentralized Clinical Trials

On May 2, 2023, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) published draft guidance titled “Decentralized Clinical Trials for Drugs, Biological Products, and Devices” (the “Draft Guidance”). The Draft Guidance expands on the FDA’s 2020 recommendations issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its 2021 draft guidance on the use of digital health technologies (“DHTs”) in clinical trials, and fulfills the directive under Section 3606 of the Food and Drug Omnibus Reform Act to “issue or revise draft guidance [ ] to clarify and advance the use of decentralized clinical studies to support the development of drugs and devices” no later than December 29, 2023.

The Draft Guidance defines a decentralized clinical trial (“DCT”) as a clinical trial where some or all of the trial-related activities occur at locations other than traditional trial sites.  The FDA clarifies that its regulatory requirements for clinical investigations are the same for DCTs as for traditional clinical trials; however, the Draft Guidance outlines how clinical trial sponsors, investigators, and other stakeholders may meet these requirements in the context of DCTs given the FDA’s recognition of the significant potential benefits of DCTs, such as expanding access to clinical trials, increasing trial efficiency, and improving trial participant engagement, recruitment, enrollment, retention, and diversity.

Some of FDA’s key recommendations include:

  • An important initial determination is whether it is appropriate for a particular trial to be conducted as a fully decentralized or hybrid DCT. Whereas a fully decentralized trial may be appropriate for an investigational product (“IP”) that is simple to administer, has a well-characterized safety profile, and does not require complex medical assessments, a hybrid approach may be more appropriate where the trial involves more complex medical assessments or supervision and monitoring of IP administration. The FDA recommends that questions related to the feasibility, design, implementation, or analysis of a DCT should be discussed early with the relevant FDA review division.
  • Given that trial-related activities for a DCT may involve a network of locations where clinical trial personnel, local health care providers (“HCPs”), and trial-related services (e.g., labs) may be provided, for inspectional purposes the investigator should select a physical location, to be listed on Form FDA 1572 – Statement of Investigator or in the investigational device exemption (“IDE”) application, where trial participant records will be stored and where trial personnel may be interviewed.
  • Both sponsor and investigator should evaluate whether certain trial-related activities may be delegated to DCT personnel located near participants’ homes. Such activities should not require detailed knowledge of the protocol or IP. Trial-related activities that are unique to the trial or require detailed knowledge of the trial protocol or the IP should be performed by qualified trial personnel who have been appropriately trained.
  • Obtaining informed consent remotely may be appropriate for a DCT as long as the process is adequate and appropriate. Oversight by institutional review boards (“IRBs”) should ensure that electronic informed consent at remote locations meets applicable requirements, and the FDA recommends the use of a central IRB in DCTs to provide for more streamlined review of the informed consent documents as well the protocol and other trial-related documents.
  • As with any trial, sponsors must ensure proper monitoring of DCTs based on the sponsor’s risk assessment. Sponsors should also implement a safety monitoring plan that accounts for the decentralized nature of the clinical trial, including by prespecifying whether safety data will be collected via telehealth or in-person visits and whether DHTs will be used to collect certain safety information.  The Draft Guidance underscores the importance of providing sufficient instruction and contact information to the trial participant should an adverse event occur and allowing the participant to arrange an unscheduled visit (either remotely or in-person), as appropriate. The FDA also recently finalized its Q&A guidance on risk-based monitoring of clinical investigations, which we blogged about here.
  • FDA notes that the “variability and precision” of data obtained from a DCT may differ from data obtained in a traditional site-based clinical trial. For example, remote assessments may vary from on-site assessments, particularly if trial participants are performing their own assessments at home.  Similarly, assessments performed by local HCPs may be less precise and consistent than assessments conducted by on-site trial personnel.  FDA states that while such variability may not affect the validity of a finding of superiority, it could compromise a finding of non-inferiority relative to an active control drug that has been evaluated in a traditional site-based trial.  FDA therefore recommends that sponsors consult with the relevant review division if planning a DCT with a non-inferiority design.
  • For telehealth visits during a DCT, investigators should confirm a participant’s identity during each visit and complete the relevant case report forms and other documentation for each visit. Additionally, the sponsor and investigator are responsible for ensuring that remote clinical trial visits comply with relevant state telehealth laws and as applicable, the telehealth laws of countries outside the U.S.
  • Given multiple sources of data collection in a DCT, the sponsor should develop a data management plan that includes the data origin and data flow from all sources to the sponsor; methods for acquiring remote data from trial participants and personnel; and a list of vendors for data collection, handling, and management.

The Draft Guidance demonstrates the FDA’s support of more widespread use of DCTs. At the same time, the Agency acknowledges that DCTs can be challenging to implement successfully, including because DCTs require coordination of trial activities with numerous parties in multiple locations that are not traditional trial sites.  The Draft Guidance also notes that if significant safety risks emerge due to remote administration or use of an IP, or if other circumstances arise that warrant in-person visits, the sponsor should discontinue remote administration or use of the IP, inform the FDA, IRB, and investigators, and determine whether the trial should be amended or continue.

Interested stakeholders may submit comments on the Draft Guidance by August 1, 2023 to Docket FDA-2022-D-2870.

Contact the authors or another Goodwin FDA team member with any questions or if you would like to submit comments to the FDA on the Draft Guidance.

FDA’s Final Q&A Guidance on Risk-Based Monitoring of Clinical Trials Provides Additional Recommendations for Sponsors

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently finalized its guidance, “A Risk-Based Approach to Monitoring of Clinical Investigations” (the “2023 RBM Guidance”) which follows up on the Agency’s March 2019 draft guidance (the “Draft Guidance”) of the same name and expands on (but does not supersede) the FDA’s August 2013 guidance, “Oversight of Clinical Investigations – A Risk-Based Approach to Monitoring” (the “2013 RBM Guidance”), with new recommendations summarized below to aid sponsors in implementing an effective and efficient risk-based approach to monitoring both risks to participants and to data integrity throughout all stages of clinical investigations of human drug and biological products, medical devices, and combination products.

(1) Approach: Identify, assess and re-assess risks. Create a plan to manage, mitigate, and/or eliminate those risks, including those risks that are newly identified or may not have been anticipated.

  • Risk assessments should inform clinical trial protocol design, investigational plans, and monitoring plans and should be reevaluated and revised throughout the investigation. The monitoring plan should be comprehensive in highlighting identified risks, even those less likely to occur but that could have a significant impact on trial quality or subject safety, and should note how risks will be managed, mitigated, or eliminated.
  • Consider how easily detectable the identified risks are, and the severity and consequences of those risks to human subject welfare and data quality if not detected and addressed.
  • Assess systemic risks, as well as site-specific risks, and consider whether site-specific risks have the potential to become systemic risks.
  • Determine an approach to on-site monitoring visits by taking into account the risks identified and the complexity and intensity of a clinical investigation. Monitoring activities should evolve based on risks identified during trials and should be proportionate to the risks to participants’ rights or safety or to data integrity.
  • Implement a centralized monitoring approach to help minimize missing data and protocol deviations in real-time, such as through the use of electronic data capture systems.
  • The risk assessment should guide how and to what extent source data verification (SDV) will be utilized during on-site monitoring visits.
  • Establish processes to ensure appropriate blinding is maintained. Identify and monitor deviations which could result in unintentional unblinding.
  • Be prepared during an FDA inspection to furnish documentation of the sponsor’s initial risk assessment, if requested.

(2) Content: Components of the monitoring plan should help explain how the sponsor intends to address the risks that could affect the investigation.

  • Include the following components (in addition to those recommended in the 2013 RBM Guidance) in the monitoring plan:
    • Overall investigation design, including blinding and randomization procedures and processes for confirming randomization is performed according to the protocol and investigational plan
    • Sample plan(s), including rationale for, and approach to, identifying the records and data that will be monitored
    • Description of particular issues that would trigger immediate escalation
    • Approach for assessing and addressing a site issue that could escalate into a systemic issue that may warrant protocol or investigation plan changes
  • Reference other clinical investigation management plans in the monitoring plan rather than repeating the information in the current monitoring plan to avoid inconsistencies.

(3) Communicate: Promptly address and communicate monitoring results to the appropriate parties to mitigate and eliminate risk.

  • Perform monitoring in accordance with the pre-established monitoring plan and address issues as the monitor identifies them, including escalation, if needed.
  • Perform a root-cause analysis of issues and promptly implement corrective and preventive actions (CAPAs).
  • Consider amendments or revisions to the protocol or the investigational plan.
  • Communicate and document significant issues to the relevant parties involved at the sponsor and site level, which may also include institutional review boards, data monitoring committees, and/or regulatory agencies, such as the FDA.
  • Provide reports of monitoring activities in a timely manner to the site and discuss the findings with the clinical investigator and site staff. Reports should follow the 2013 RBM Guidance.

While the FDA’s regulations require sponsors to monitor the conduct and progress of their clinical investigations, there are no specifics on how sponsors are to conduct such monitoring. FDA’s guidance provides helpful direction on clinical trial monitoring while recognizing that a monitoring approach should evolve over the course of a trial as risk assessments evolve. Sponsors with upcoming or ongoing clinical trials should consider FDA’s recommendations in monitoring plan development and execution of monitoring activities throughout a trial.


Clinical Trial Diversity Plans and Rare Diseases

Clinical trial diversity is not a new concept–the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a draft guidance providing specific recommendations to industry on how to improve diversity in clinical trials in April 2022 which we blogged about here–but the passage of the Food and Drug Omnibus Reform Act, or FDORA, highlighted that the FDA will continue pushing sponsors to make progress on this front. Sponsors of rare disease trials, in particular, know that the act of increasing clinical trial diversity is not an easy undertaking, especially when working with already limited rare disease populations. However, the FDA’s focus on ensuring diversity among trial participants may present new opportunities for designing and executing clinical trials in rare disease indications.

Under FDORA, sponsors of new investigational drugs will be required, unless waived by the FDA, to submit a “diversity action plan” for all Phase 3 clinical trials or, as appropriate, another pivotal study in support of a future marketing application (there is also a similar requirement for sponsors of medical devices where a trial is conducted under an investigational device exemption). Under FDORA, this plan is required to include the sponsor’s goals for enrollment in the study, the rationale for those goals, and an explanation of how the sponsor intends to meet those goals. While FDORA requires these elements to be included and that FDA issue guidance on the form and format of diversity plans, FDORA does not expressly restrict a sponsor from providing additional information with its description of goals. For rare diseases, some education and background on the disease population may be warranted in submission of sponsor diversity plan goals.

Under FDORA, sponsors must submit their plan no later than when they submit their Phase 3 or other pivotal trial protocol, and the FDA has the authority to modify the plan or to waive the requirement for a plan altogether in certain circumstances, such as if conducting a clinical trial in accordance with a diversity action plan would otherwise be impracticable.

During FDA’s Rare Disease Day 2023, agency officials noted that the FDA has long encouraged diversity, including through guidances issued prior to the April 2022 draft guidance, but the passage of FDORA marks the first time that addressing diversity with a prospective plan is a requirement in the development process. With that in mind, speakers pointed out that developing a candidate in a rare indication is all the more reason to develop a strategy to enroll as many eligible patients as possible.

Sponsors in the rare disease space should consider the following strategies to increase diversity in their trials, where feasible:

  • Engage advocacy groups and community health groups (early and often), as these groups deeply understand their populations’ specific barriers to research participation and the types of accommodations that should be considered when designing trials to minimize burdens and maximize participation;
  • Create more inclusivity at the study design stage, such as by widening eligibility criteria, re-enrolling early phase participants in later phase studies, where possible, or conducting cross-over extension trials, which could make a significant difference in a patient’s willingness to participate;
  • Simplify the complexity of trials and minimize burdens to patients to participate, where possible, such as through the use of local laboratories for testing, or consolidating assessments to be done at a smaller number of in-person visits during the trial;
  • Adopt as part of the trial design access to telemedicine and technology-driven solutions, which can help promote more inclusiveness with respect to socioeconomic, travel/location, and language barriers; and
  • If using a contract research organization, or CRO, partner with a CRO, or other third-party vendor, that can demonstrate experience supporting and achieving diverse population enrollment and a community-first approach.

We anticipate that the FDA’s specific recommendations for sponsors will continue to evolve, as FDORA requires the FDA to issue new draft guidance or update existing draft guidance within 12 months of the enactment of FDORA. At this stage, however, sponsors have an opportunity to propose creative and innovative approaches to designing, recruiting patients for, and conducting their Phase 3 and pivotal clinical trials, even in the rare disease space.

Leveraging Investigator-Initiated Trials in Rare Disease Drug Development

Investigators interested in rare disease treatment development have the opportunity to approach drug and biologic developers to obtain investigational drug supply for trials in which the investigators, typically at academic institutions, act as sponsor-investigators. Similarly, companies open to extending their product development pipelines can look to investigator-initiated trials as a mechanism to better understand the overall safety profile for their product candidates while exploring the potential therapeutic utility of their product candidates in diseases where unmet medical needs remain. So often, those needs exist in rare diseases where populations are small and investment returns are difficult to project. Drug developers deciding whether to supply investigational products to sponsor-investigators looking to explore therapeutic potential in areas of their research interests should evaluate what level of involvement to exercise over the investigator-initiated trial. We highlight some of these considerations below.

Ultimately, drug developers hold the decision-making power over whether to allow investigator-initiated research for their product candidates. Thereafter, the contracting process around the setup of an investigator-initiated trial and clinical supply agreement provides drug developers the opportunity to negotiate their level of involvement in the research of their candidates. In negotiating the setup of investigator-initiated research supply, drug developers often balance their support of research into what are often unmet needs with limited company resources, limited supply that may be available and any potential risks that may flow from trial learnings in the proposed disease space. As an upside, investigator-initiated trials afford developers the opportunity to extend their research reach and product development pipelines, so any interest by investigators to conduct research with industry candidates warrants consideration.

Clinical Trial Diversity Planning for Sponsors: What to Know About FDA’s Recent Draft Guidance

On April 13, 2022, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) issued a draft guidance providing specific recommendations to the industry on how to improve diversity in clinical trials. The FDA’s focus on increasing racial and ethnic diversity in clinical trials is not new, with the agency issuing several guidances since 2016 on this topic.[1] However, the recent draft guidance sets out new expectations for sponsors conducting clinical trials intended to support marketing authorization of drugs, biologics, and medical devices.

Read the client alert by FDA Senior Associate Elizabeth Mulkey and Partner Alexander Varond.