Traits, trends and hits of orphan drug designations in cystic fibrosis

Enrico Costa*, Silvia Girotti, Hendrika A. van den Ham, Marco Cipolli, Cornelis K. van der Ent, Jennifer L. Taylor-Cousar, Hubert G.M. Leufkens

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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Background: In the United States (US) and in Europe, cystic fibrosis (CF) qualifies as a rare disease, thus positioning the field to benefit from regulatory incentives provided by orphan drug designation (ODD) to boost pharmaceutical research and development. In this study, we analyzed the pool of products for the treatment of CF that received such incentives from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and/or the European Medicines Agency (EMA) over the past two decades. We describe the characteristics and trends in ODDs over time and explore factors that might be determinants of successful drug development. Methods: We collected the products that received the ODD from the registries of the FDA and the EMA from 2000 to 2021, characterizing their nature, development stage, and type of sponsor. We categorized the study drugs according to the therapeutic target addressed and described trends of drug development over the study period. A logistic regression analysis was done to assess how ODD characteristics were associated with the approval for market authorization. Results: From 2000–2021, 107 ODDs were collectively granted by the FDA and the EMA for products developed for the treatment of CF. Although the trends of the number of ODDs granted remained stable over time, those targeting the CF basic protein defect increased from 6 out of 54 (11.1%) in the first half of the study period up to 20 out of 54 (37.7%) in the second half, while those treating symptoms decreased from 48/54 (88.9%) to 33/53 (62.3%). Overall, 10 products obtained marketing approval: 7 in both the US and Europe, 3 only in Europe. All the approved ODDs were chemical products for chronic use. No statistically significant difference was found across the examinated variables, but we observed possible drivers of successful drug development for ODDs targeting CFTR, as well as for those with active substances previously marketed, and for those developed by large companies and companies with experience in developing orphan drugs. By contrast, our findings suggest that financial issues most hamper the development of ODDs sponsored by small-medium enterprises. Conclusions: Although ODDs for treating infection and other CF sequelae accounted for the majority, we observed a shift of ODDs toward mechanism-based products over the study period. In line with other rare diseases, we found that approximately 1/10 ODDs for CF reached the status of marketing approval. Advances in disease genetics paved the way for a shift in CF drug development; however, we described how the convergence of pharmaceutical technology, the financial environment, and the regulatory ecosystem played a crucial role in successful marketing authorization in CF.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)949-957
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Cystic Fibrosis
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2023


  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Drug development
  • European Medicines Agency
  • Food and Drug Administration
  • Orphan drug designation
  • Rare diseases


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