You may have recently heard about biosimilars for many autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and Crohn disease or maybe you haven’t even hear about biosimilars at all! A biosimilar is a medication that is a “copycat” version of a biologic but may have some small differences. The patent, which prevents other companies from making a product, on many biologics will expire soon opening a new opportunity for the development of biosimilars. While these medications are just beginning to come into the US market you can already find them in Europe.
What are biosimilars and what can I expect when I use them? Are they better than the real medication, what is the cost? Read on to get the answer to all these questions and more!
What is a Biosimilar?
First of all, to understand biosimilars you must first understand what biologics are. Biologics are a class of medication used to treat many different autoimmune diseases. Scientist make biologics with living cells or tissues inside a yeast or bacteria. They are very complex molecules. Conventional medications, like methotrexate and hydroxychloroquine, are produced through specific reactions which produces a very precise molecule with a distinct structure. These medications are the same every time, the same materials, used in the same way produce the same drug. These molecules are NOT complex. Biologics don’t always make an exact replica as living cells make them. These are sensitive to the environment including light, temperature and nutrients.
Now add in the addition of a biosimilar. A biosimilar is a biologic that if it can show that it is “highly similar” to another, already approved biologic. The original biologic is the “reference product”. The FDA requires these products to meet strict safety and efficacy standards just like biologics. The company then needs to prove that their biosimilar is a match for the already approved product for a particular disease. After this happens, the biosimilar automatically gets approval to treat other diseases the reference product already has approval for. For example, a biosimilar that has approval for rheumatoid arthritis would then automatically get approval for psoriatic arthritis if the reference product has approval for both.
Isn’t this the same as a generic?
The reality is that it’s a little bit more complicated than that. Think of a brand and generic medication as the recipe for a hamburger at a fast food chain. If you follow the same recipe you get the same hamburger every time, a hamburger in China tastes the same as one made in Albany, NY. Biologics and biosimilars are more like the recipe for sourdough bread. You can follow the same recipe every time but if the weather is different the bread may turn out different. The bread may have a slightly different texture but it will still fulfill its purpose. So biosimilars are not generics because they are NOT exactly the same as their reference medication. It’s just that the difference is so small that it really should work about the same.
Treatment with biologics is expensive. But the benefits, like an increase in quality of life, far outweighs the cost. What if you could get similar effects at a decreased cost? That is where biosimilars come into the picture. After the patent on a biologic has expired other companies are able to create drugs using the same process to get a biosimilar medication. Multiple companies producing the same product forces competition and a decrease in price. This is what theoretically should happen. In reality, we actually don’t anticipate a significant decrease in cost partly due to the complex process to produce the product.
How will I know what the medication is?
Biosimilars will have the same base name as the biologic they replicate. They will have an extra suffix after the name to differentiate them from the replicated drug. Naming the products in this way ensures you know what drug it replicated (through the base name) and that it is not the “real thing”, but in fact a biosimilar (through the suffix). For example, infliximab is the generic name for Remicade- the branded version. The biosimilar produced by Janssen Biotech is infliximab-dyyb. The addition of the “dyyb” shows that it is a biosimilar to infliximab.
If I have an allergy to the reference medication, am I allergic the biosimilar medication?
Just because you are allergic to the reference medication does not mean you will be allergic to the biosimilar, but it also does not mean you won’t be. True antibody derived allergic reactions are uncommon. Injection site reactions are much more common. There are many factors that can affect if you will have a reaction and what type of reaction it will be.
Some of these factors include:
- Source of the protein used to make the biosimilar
- What type of cell the protein was made in
- Alteration in the protein structure. This can occur from something as simple as a change in storage temperate to changes in the manufacturing process.
As always, if you experience any type of reaction, call your doctor or get to an emergency center right away.
What biosimilars are approved in the U.S.?
At the time of this post there 4 products which have FDA approved biosimilars. This includes
- adalimumab-atto, biosimilar to Humira (adalimumab)
- etanercept-szzs, biosimilar to Enbrel (etanercept)
- infliximab-abda and infliximab-dyyb, biosimilar to Remicade (infliximab)
- filgrastim-sndz, biosimilar to Neupogen (filgrastim)
There are many other products currently being studied and this list will soon grow larger.
Is it as good as the real thing? What should I expect?
This is probably your biggest concern with using a biosimilar. When you find a treatment that works, you don’t want to jeopardize your health by changing your medications. Believe me, neither does your doctor. Maybe you are wondering if a biosimilar will do the same and possibly save you money? The FDA approval process ensures that biosimilars are just as effective (AND SAFE) as the biologic being replicated. Researchers need to prove that their product has the same clinical effect as the reference product. In the U.S., the FDA require strict safety and efficacy studies prior to approval and post-marketing studies. These efforts help clinicians keep track of real-world experience with newly approved medications. Over the next few years it will be important for both patients and providers to stay up-to-date with post-marketing information related to the use and experience with biosimilars.
Do you have any experiences using biosimilars? Share them below!
Author: Alexis Bruno, Doctor of Pharmacy Candidate graduating May 2017 from Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.
Reviewed and approved by: Jessica Farrell, PharmD. Clinical Pharmacist, The Center for Rheumatology/Associate Professor, Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences
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