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Biotechnology: White House Announces Effort to Modernize the Regulatory System for Biotechnology Products
In a bit of a surprise announcement, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the U.S. Trade Representative, and the Council on Environmental Quality released a memorandum on July 2, 2015, directing three federal agencies with jurisdiction over products of biotechnology, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to update the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology. The Memorandum for Heads of Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Agriculture, is short, but clear as to timetable and deliverables.
Last updated in 1992, and first rolled out in 1986, the Coordinated Framework is the blueprint for federal regulatory policy for ensuring the safety of products of biotechnology. The Coordinated Framework is of significant interest to the agribusiness community as USDA and EPA regulate genetically modified crops and plant pests. According to the New York Times, more than 90 percent of the corn, soybeans, and cotton grown in the U.S. have foreign genes inserted into the DNA to make the crops resistant to herbicides, insects, or both. While acknowledging the Coordinated Framework is working as intended in ensuring the safety of biotechnology products, the OSTP was quick to note in their blog item “Improving Transparency and Ensuring Continued Safety in Biotechnology,” that “the complexity of the array of regulations and guidance documents developed by the three federal agencies with jurisdiction over biotechnology products can make it difficult for the public to understand how the safety of biotechnology products is evaluated, and navigating the regulatory process for these products can be unduly challenging, especially for small companies.”
The goal of the update effort, according to the memorandum, is to ensure public confidence in the regulatory system, improve transparency, predictability, coordination, and efficiency in the regulatory system, and encourage and support innovation in the area of biotechnology and products of biotechnology. According to the OSTP blog item:
According to the memorandum, the following elements will support the process to achieve these objectives:
A number of reports have .issued in the recent past calling for exactly what the Administration announced on July 2. Last year, the Venter Institute issued a landmark analysis of the domestic biotechnology regulatory system in which it highlighted the critical need for modernizing the Coordinated Framework. J. Craig Venter Institute. Synthetic Biology and the U.S. Biotechnology Regulatory System: Challenges and Options (May 2014).
More recently, the National Research Council of the National Academies issued, on March 13, 2015, Industrialization of Biology: A Roadmap to Accelerate the Advance Manufacturing of Chemicals. The report, prepared by the Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology, Board on Life Sciences, Division on Earth and Life Studies, identified the challenges and opportunities posed by the current regulatory system relating to biotechnology and synthetic biology.
The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Synthetic Biology Project issued a statement praising the Administration’s decision: “The Synthetic Biology Project supports the effort by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to update the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology to address emerging technologies like synthetic biology.” The statement goes on to say: “We see this as a positive development and one that is long overdue considering the rapid advancement of biotech-related fields like synthetic biology.”
A forthcoming report from the Synthetic Biology Project examines the regulatory pathways of new applications that are close to entering the market. That report finds confusion about the regulatory jurisdiction of different agencies in the framework and questions which statutes apply to the applications. Earlier this year, the Project released an interactive, crowdsourced inventory to track applications and products that utilize synthetic biology techniques.
The memorandum is welcome news as the Coordinated Framework needs updating for all the reasons outlined in the reports noted above. Despite the Framework’s inherent elasticity and nimbleness, the pace of innovation and complexity of new biotechnology products require a modernized, forward-focused framework.