10 Dec New Abuse-Resistant Opioid Receives $60 Million Financial Backing
The prescription drug epidemic is still gripping the U.S., with opiate painkilling substances like OxyContin being responsible for many of the deaths. Since 2003, these painkillers have led to more overdose deaths than heroin and cocaine combined, and for every death, another 35 people are taken to the emergency room and 161 will report abuse or dependence. Correcting this issue is a huge public health priority and one of the many approaches being explored is the idea of “abuse-resistant” opiate medications. KemPharm is trying to take this idea even further, by creating a medication that only has an effect when taken as directed, and they’ve recently received financial backing to the tune of $60 million in order to make their plans a reality. But will this be the “magic bullet” for prescription drug abuse, or are we missing the real issue?
Abuse-Resistant Opiate Drugs
The idea of abuse-resistant pills is not a new one, and abuse-resistant formulations of both OxyContin (oxycodone) and Opana (oxymorphone) have been released in the U.S. The new formulation of OxyContin was designed to address the problem of users crushing the original version prior to snorting or injecting, and consisted of a coating that made the substance very difficult to crush. The new version of Opana had a similar approach to rectifying the injecting issue, with a special formulation that would cause it would turn Jell-O-like when users tried to heat it prior to injecting, making abuse nearly impossible in this fashion. Coming up with the perfect formulation for preventing abuse is a priority for pharmaceutical companies, and a wide range of competing ideas are being explored.
Chief operating officer of KemPharm, Gordon Johnson, likened these approaches to “speed bumps, but not barriers.” This is because, according to Johnson, if users persist they can crush the pills or mix them with water. Those struggling with addiction to opiates are determined enough to make it work, as you might expect. The company’s core idea is a compound currently called KP201, which differs from other strategies because its biochemical effect depends on the route of administration. This means that if a user crushed up the substance to snort or inject it, the compounds within would not have an effect. In fact, the only way the substance would interact with the body and create effects is if the drug is taken orally, as is suggested by physicians, and minimizes the “rush” users get from faster methods of administration.
The problem for smaller companies like KemPharm isn’t in coming up with the approaches, but getting funding for testing and implementation. The small Midwestern company has attracted attention, though, and early in June it was announced that Deerfield Management Company (a healthcare investment firm from New York) would provide KemPharm $60 million in funding for the idea. The initial $25 million is to get the project started, and the remainder will be provided when the company hits certain key points in the drug’s development. Johnson commented that, “Getting institutional investment capital is the hardest thing that any biotech does until they have an approved drug. So this is really significant. It’s a huge validation of KemPharm and its science.”
The Future of Pain Medication?
The problem of prescription drug abuse is so difficult to solve because pain is a real, debilitating medical issue, and opioids are the only tools doctors have for the more severe cases. In an ideal world, there’d be effective pain relievers without addictive properties, but in the absence of that, reducing the abuse potential of existing drugs is one approach drug companies can take.
However, as previous abuse-resistant versions of opioids have taught us, this isn’t enough to rectify the problem. When the abuse-resistant version of OxyContin was released in 2010, 36 percent of prescription medication abusers were using it as their primary substance. Just 21 months later, this figure had dropped to 13 percent. This wasn’t a success, though, because data revealed that abusers simply switched to fentanyl and hydromorphone, which increased in prevalence from 20 to 32 percent over the same period. In addition, heroin use nearly doubled.
There Is Only One Solution
The problem with abuse-resistant medicines is that they don’t address the real issue, which is addiction. The new formulation of OxyContin, for instance, was effective and stopping people from abusing it, but it’s just one substance out of many with abuse potential. Users have many other options, and even if all prescription opioids were made abuse-resistant, it appears the primary effect would be increasing the proportion of heroin abusers.
There is only one solution. The real problem is addiction, a brain-disease that drives people to abuse substances as a flawed method of “coping” with their emotional and psychological issues. Abuse-resistant pills can’t correct these issues; they still persist and simply push the user somewhere else for their fix. The funding of the new medication might give doctors a drug to prescribe that is less likely to lead new people into addiction, but the only thing that can really help those already addicted is a good rehabilitation program, complete with peer support and counseling. The solution is to remove the thing that drives people to take the drugs in the first place, not to make them look elsewhere for the drugs.
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