A reminder of the promise and limitations of abuse-deterrent properties

By: Douglas C. Throckmorton

The ongoing growing amount of drug abuse in our nation, particularly with prescription pain relievers known as opioids, has prompted a lot of talk about the potential of opioids with “abuse-deterrent” properties to help combat this public health problem. But care must be taken in putting  too much promise into abuse-deterrent technology at this time because the science is still relatively new and evolving.

Douglas C. Throckmorton, M.D.While the FDA strongly supports the development of products with effective abuse-deterrent properties and believes they can make a real difference, abuse-deterrent properties do not make an opioid impossible to abuse, and do not prevent overdose and death – they only makes certain kinds of abuse more difficult or less rewarding.

Current abuse-deterrent technologies tend to focus on making the drug either harder to crush, which makes them harder to snort or inject; harder to extract, which means the opioid cannot be easily separated from the other ingredients in the drug for purposes of abuse; more difficult to abuse orally, which is the most common form of opioid abuse; or  less attractive for abuse (e.g., the drug may contain an ingredient that counteracts the action of the opioid, making the drug less “likeable” or even unpleasant).

This week, FDA approved a new prescription opioid tablet called Targiniq ER, which contains a combination of the opioid pain medicine oxycodone and a drug called naloxone, an opioid antagonist. Naloxone can block the euphoric effects of opioid medicines and is used most often to treat an overdose. The science behind this particular abuse-deterrent formulation works like this: If the Targiniq ER tablet is taken as directed (i.e., swallowed according to its approved use), the naloxone will not interfere with the oxycodone. If, however, the tablets are crushed into a powder and snorted or injected, the naloxone inside the tablet will be absorbed and block the desired effect from the oxycodone.

Targiniq ER joins OxyContin (oxycodone) as the second drug FDA has approved with labeling describing the product’s abuse-deterrent properties consistent with FDA’s 2013 draft guidance for industry Abuse-Deterrent Opioids –Evaluation and Labeling which states that for claims to be made, they must be based on robust, compelling, and accurate data and analysis, and the description of the abuse-deterrent properties or potential to reduce abuse must be clearly and fairly communicated.

OxyContin gets its abuse-deterrent properties differently than Targiniq, by including ingredients that make the tablet hard to crush or dissolve. Efforts to pulverize the tablets into a powder result in a chemical reaction that makes the crushed tablet into a gooey gel that makes it more difficult to be inhaled or injected the way drug abusers would like.  While Targiniq and OxyContin use different abuse-deterrent technologies, they serve the same purpose: they are expected to help deter the often lethal practice of snorting or injecting prescription drugs.

In the context of this important and evolving area of science, FDA is very encouraged to see another drug with proven abuse-deterrent properties come to the market. We do need to remember that “abuse-deterrent” is not the same as “abuse-proof” and even abuse-deterrent formulations can be abused and people who take them can overdose and die.  For example, someone who wants to “get high” from prescription opioids can still swallow more than the prescribed amount, and this simple but common form of abuse can result in overdose and death.

Currently available products with abuse-deterrent properties are an important step in the right direction, but there is much more work to be done. The technologies involved in abuse deterrence and methods for evaluating whether those technologies actually deter abuse are rapidly evolving. To address this rapid change, FDA is working with many drug makers to advance the science of abuse deterrence and to help them navigate the regulatory path to market as quickly as possible. While FDA strongly supports a transition to opioids with abuse-deterrent properties, we do not believe it is feasible or in the interest of public health at this time to require all opioid products to have such properties.

To help support the safe use of all opioid products, FDA is working in many other ways to help prescribers and patients make the best possible choices about how to use these powerful drugs. Our goal is to find the balance between appropriate access to opioids for patients with pain and the need to reduce the tragedies of their abuse and misuse.

Douglas Throckmorton, M.D., is Deputy Center Director for Regulatory Programs in FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research

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