The Problem with Vivitrol®

(https://www.vivitrol.com/opioid-dependence/what-is-vivitrol)

Fascinating post by guest contributor Amy Dunn, graduate student at the Rockefeller University!


What is Vivitrol®? This question is posed in countless ads depicting attractive young people across target states, such as MA, NY, NJ and PA. The ads do little to answer the question – instead just giving a drug name and a website. Vivitrol®, made by the Boston-based company Alkermes, is the brand name for the drug naltrexone and is used to treat both alcohol and opiate addiction.

Opiates like heroin or oxycodone work by stimulating the mu opioid receptor in the brain. This leads to the euphoric and rewarding effects that are characteristic of these drugs. The two most popular medications for treating opiate addictions, methadone and buprenorphine, both work by stimulating that same receptor in a slightly different way. This relieves the cravings, but doesn’t cause the same “high” as heroin or oxycodone. Methadone and buprenorphine are known as agonist, or replacement, medications. Dr. Simon Says Science wrote an excellent article for Addiction Blog that compares methadone and buprenorphine and explains how they work in greater detail. Naltrexone, on the other hand, is an antagonist of that same receptor – meaning that it completely blocks the effects of any opioid. While it seems counterintuitive, medications that stimulate the mu opioid receptor and medications that block the mu opioid receptor have both been proven to be effective treatments for opiate addiction.

Naltrexone was approved by the FDA in the 1980’s and was originally formulated as a daily pill, however it was difficult to get people to adhere to taking their medication. Because naltrexone is a mu opioid receptor antagonist, it can lead to unpleasant feelings that are the opposite of the euphoria felt with an opiate agonist. People with addictions could stop taking the medication if they wanted to get high instead. Because of these adherence issues, the drug bounced around between companies. In addition to these issues with compliance, it was difficult for companies to market an addiction medication because of the social stigma. Addiction is often seen as a moral problem instead of a medical one, which makes selling medications for addictions very difficult.

Naltrexone became far more practical when it was reformulated as an extended-release injection. The extended-release injection lasts for a month, greatly reducing the problem of adherence. Vivitrol®, the brand name for the extended-release naltrexone introduced by Alkermes, was first approved in 2006 for the treatment of alcohol addiction. Following a successful clinical trial in Russia, it was also approved for treatment of opiate addiction in 2010. Despite poor initial sales, the popularity of Vivitrol® has grown rapidly in the past couple years.

Vivitrol® Sales: (https://www.scribd.com/document/351102245/Alkermes-2016-Analyst-and-Investor-Event-Presentation#from_embed)

 

Vivitrol® is still far less utilized than methadone and buprenorphine, but this is expected probably because it is much newer on the market. Importantly, not everyone responds well to methadone or buprenorphine, and having another option for the treatment of opiate addiction should be a good thing for everyone. However, a disturbing pattern has emerged in the past couple years regarding the ethics of Alkermes’ marketing strategies and scientific data. They are missing key scientific data, and actively engaging in strategies to undermine the use of agonist medications that compete with Vivitrol®. While these marketing strategies may or may not be illegal, they still raise important questions about the ethical obligations of pharmaceutical companies to their patients.

The Science on Vivitrol®

In order for the FDA to approve a drug, a drug company must first prove that the drug is effective through a clinical trial. Clinical trials are very tightly regulated in the US which makes sense because you’re testing a drug that is technically still experimental and could be dangerous to people. Not only do you need to prove that your drug is safe, but you also need to prove that it is at least as effective as other drugs out there that treat the same condition. This is where there are holes in the data on Vivitrol®.

The clinical trial that convinced the FDA to approve Vivitrol® was done in Russia.3 Clinical trials are done in other countries for many reasons. Companies may be trying to skirt the tight regulations here in the US, or they might just need to work with a patient population that is found more commonly in other places. The FDA reviews the study design and the data to see if they want to approve the drug regardless of where the study was done. The clinical trial on Vivitrol® was designed to see if Vivitrol® was effective for treating opiate addiction, but did not compare it to either of the other approved medications for opiate addiction (methadone or buprenorphine). Neither of these agonist treatments is available in Russia. In fact, both are illegal because they are opiate agonists. Alkermes only needed to prove that Vivitrol® was more effective than placebo in this case. The results were promising – almost 90% of the addicted persons who received the naltrexone shot remained abstinent during the test period, compared to just over 60% of the control group. This was enough evidence to get FDA approval, however to date there are no clinical trials comparing Vivitrol® to either methadone or buprenorphine. In addition, there was no follow-up study examining the long-term outcomes of the participants of the clinical trial in Russia.

Since it has been approved, there have been several other clinical trials examining the efficacy of Vivitrol® in different populations (although none of these studies compared it to buprenorphine or methadone). There are still concerns about adherence to Vivitro®, as well as the possibility that a person could take a dangerous amount of opioids in order to overcome the blockade effect. Because it’s an antagonist, if an addicted person takes naltrexone while they still have opiates in their system, the naltrexone will both stop the euphoric effects of the opiate and also cause withdrawal symptoms. In fact, a person has to be over a week opiate-free and have already gone through withdrawal before they can begin naltrexone treatment.

However, no medication is ever perfect. While there are still unanswered questions about Vivitrol®, it is clearly an addition to the toolbox that healthcare providers can use to help people fight addictions. It is important that these scientific concerns are discussed and addressed, and that these issues are clearly presented to the public so that people can make informed decisions about their medications.

The Marketing on Vivitrol®

(www.vivitrol.com)

To understand more about how Alkermes is advertising Vivitrol®, we can look at a screenshot of their main website listed on their advertisements (www.Vivitrol.com). This language – “the first and only once-monthly, non-addictive medication” is problematic.  While they are correct in characterizing naltrexone as “non-addictive”, this wording implies that the other medications that are available (methadone and buprenorphine) somehow are addictive. This same language is often used in a 2016 investor presentation as well, where they describe agonist therapy as “maintain[ing] physiologic dependence on opioids”. This is scientifically correct; a person who is using agonist medication may indeed be dependent on their medication. This simply means that they would experience negative physiological consequences if they abruptly stopped use. It does not mean that they are addicted. “Addiction” is a physiologic dependence combined with compulsive drug-taking despite negative consequences. Alkermes is conflating these two terms in a way that is confusing, and is meant to manipulate the consumer into equating agonist therapies with addicting opiates of abuse. While their statement that agonist therapies lead to dependence is not incorrect, it is still reinforcing a very damaging stereotype that agonist therapy is just “replacing one drug with another.” This stigma against agonist therapies is a major hurdle for the treatment of opiate addictions. Alkermes actively reinforces and uses this stereotype in order to promote Vivitrol® as the “only non-opioid treatment.”

(https://www.scribd.com/document/351102245/Alkermes-2016-Analyst-and-Investor-Event-Presentation#from_embed)

In addition to portraying Vivitrol® as a better and safer alternative to agonist therapies in the public sphere, Alkermes is also deliberately promoting this view in the political realm. This is noted in the slide from an investor presentation that outlines their marketing strategies, above.  NPR and Side Effects Media published an excellent article detailing their investigation into Alkermes’ political involvement.  They describe Alkermes lobbyists presenting to government committees on addiction therapy and promoting the idea that agonist therapies are “replacing one drug with another”. There is overwhelming scientific evidence supporting methadone and buprenorphine as effective treatments for keeping people with addictions off of heroin and able to live their lives without experience frequent drug cravings. Despite this, there are many decision-makers in the government who do not want to support their use in treatment. Republican Rep. Tim Murphy described agonist therapy as “government –supported addiction” at a meeting in March 2015. He has received political donations from Alkermes. Tom Price, the new Health and Human Services Secretary, received a great deal of criticism for his statement that agonist therapy was “substituting one opioid for another” – despite the department’s website explicitly stating that it supports these kinds of evidence-based treatments.

Alkermes’ strategy of reinforcing of this stereotype leads to real policy consequences. The NPR and Side Effects Public Media report describes several bills that contain language steeped in these stereotypes – specifically instructing treatment providers to strive for “the goal of opioid abstinence.” This is beneficial for Alkermes, as Vivitrol® is the only non-opioid treatment available. The science however, does not indicate that opioid abstinence leads to better outcomes for patients than maintaining their agonist therapies. The report includes drafts of several bills that even mentioned Vivitrol® by name, although it was later removed because of ethical concerns. Alkermes lobbyists have also supported tightening regulations for methadone and buprenorphine, which is incredibly problematic given how restrictive the regulations already are for treatment providers.

Alkermes may not be making explicitly false claims in its marketing, but it is certainly playing off of existing harmful biases in order to further their sales. Whether or not this is illegal is debatable; it is illegal under the Federal Trade Commission for companies to “mislead” consumers. At the very least, it is incredibly unethical for a company to be so actively promoting stereotypes and policies that harm the very patients that they claim to be helping. This falls under the larger umbrella of the issues of advertising, pricing and political involvement of the pharmaceutical industry in our country. While there are no easy fixes, it is important that companies like Alkermes are held responsible for their unethical behavior and that consumers are able to make informed decisions about their treatment based on the available research.


About the Author: Hello! I’m currently finishing my 3rd year of graduate school at Rockefeller University. I’m studying the cell signaling changes caused by drugs of abuse and investigating the ways we can use those different pathways to treat addictions. In addition to learning more about the science of addiction through my research, I’m also interested in learning about the different political and social issues surrounding drug addiction. All of the views and opinions here are entirely my own and definitely don’t reflect those of my lab or institution! My email address is adunn@rockefeller.edu.

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Response to the June 2017 New Yorker Article on the Opioid Epidemic

At this point, I would think that knowledge about the vastness and seriousness of the prescription opioid and heroin epidemic, the biggest threat to American health and well being since the HIV/AIDS epidemic, would be common knowledge. Of course, given the abundance of shiny Internet things to tantalize easily distracted Americans, this is unfortunately not necessarily the case. Thankfully the New Yorker, with their characteristic excellence in reporting, has just released a superb and humanizing article on the opioid epidemic in their June 5 & 12, 2017 issue.

Read the article here.

The piece puts a much-needed human face to the horrors and misery of opioid addiction and the too-frequent death by overdose. Margaret Talbot, the article’s author, zeroes in on Berkeley County, West Virginia, in the heart of a region of the country hardest hit by the epidemic. I don’t want to give away much (because you should actually just read the article) except that the stories are heart wrenching yet balanced, and thorough in way that only the New Yorker can deliver. While the article is largely about the lives of people affected by and fighting against the epidemic, I was disappointed with a couple of points that were either made incorrectly, weakly, or not at all.

First, the article barely talks about how the epidemic arose in the first place. It mentions Purdue pharmaceuticals, the bastards behind Oxycontin (drug name: oxycodone), and that prescription opioid abuse led to heroin addiction but does not describe how the surge in addiction to prescription opioids occurred in the first place. The article describes the main problem with Oxycontin is that it can be crushed and snorted but a 2010 formulation of the drug reduced this risk. While this is indeed true, the article neglects to mention that when someone is first prescribed an opioid like Oxycontin for chronic pain (as was the case in the late 90s and early 2000s despite any evidence for the effectiveness of opioids in the treatment of chronic pain), the addictive potential of opioids often led to opioid substance abuse disorder in people who took it as prescribed (see this comprehensive article for more info). This is the big point, many of the people that eventually abused opioids started down that road by taking the drug as prescribed! Talbot incorrectly frames the big picture problem but she then goes on to correctly describe how those addicted to prescription opioids found their way to the cheaper and more abundant heroin.

The article goes on to mention the CDC’s release of guidelines on opioid prescription but fails to cite that this guidance came out as late as March, 2016, well after the epidemic had already taken root and thousands were already addicted and dying of overdose (I wrote an article on the CDC’s guidelines last year and highly recommend you read that article too if you want to learn more). The CDC’s guidance is mainly about the point I made above, that the over-prescription of opioids is the real cause of the epidemic, not just the crushable version of Oxycontin, and the limitation of opioid prescription is one of the huge policy interventions that is needed.

Later in the article, Talbot introduces us to Dr. John Aldis, a retired U.S. Navy Physician and resident of Berkeley County, WV who took it upon himself to educate people on how to use Narcan (generic drug name: naloxone), the treatment for opioid overdose. Dr. Aldis makes the critical point about the importance of medication-assisted treatments such as Suboxone (generic drug name: buprenorphine) and methadone. I appreciated the point made in the article that some patients may need these vital treatments long-term, or even for life, to combat the all-consuming single-mindedness of opioid addiction. However, beyond this passing mention, I felt that medication-assisted treatment was only weakly covered. There is still a great deal of ignorance about these treatments. Indeed, current HHS secretary Tom Price falsely characterized them as “replacing one opioid with another” and was majorly criticized by addiction experts. The reality is that there is overwhelming scientific evidence (I’ve written plenty on this site) describing the effectiveness of methadone and buprenorphine at 1) keeping addicts off of heroin, 2) allowing them to be able to live their lives without suffering from withdrawals and cravings, and 3) most importantly, keeping them alive. Talbot could have done a much better job of really hammering these points home but she seemed reticent, for some reason, to discuss it in detail in this article.

Finally, the article repeatedly emphasizes the importance of rehab clinics and tells the story of a huge victory for Martinsburg, WV (a town in Berkeley County) when the city council agrees to open a clinic in the town itself. I do not want to discount the importance of an addict assessing their addiction and taking an active role to end it, but this article does miss another critical point: rehab clinics only exist because addiction medicine is not part of medical school curricula and most hospitals are ill-equipped to treat those suffering from addiction. I feel this article could have really made the case for the importance of training for doctors in addiction medicine and the necessary shift that needs to happen for addiction treatment, a move away from overpriced (and often ineffective) private rehab facilities, and to public hospitals. Unfortunately, this point was not made.

Despite these missed opportunities, I commend Talbot and the New Yorker for a well-written article and thank them for this important piece that I encourage all to read.

 

The Laws You Never Heard Of that Will Help to Fight the Opioid Epidemic

When a politician is in his or her final few month in office (because either they lost their re-election or simply decided not to or can’t run), they call this the “lame duck” period. President Obama’s last few months in office were anything but “lame”.

On December 14, 2016, in a rare move of bipartisanship, Obama signed into law the massive 21st Century Cures Act. This law provides a boost in funding for NIH (which includes $1.8 billion for the cancer moonshot initiative), changes to the drug approval process through the FDA, and ambitious mental health reform. This huge bill has the stated purpose of “To accelerate the discovery, development, and delivery of 21st century cures, and for other purposes.”

I’m willing to bet many people were totally unaware of this legislation that could help millions. There are some parts that are controversial and, as with any large piece of legislation, some provision that benefit this interest or that have been worked in (the changes to drug approval at the FDA will likely benefit Big Pharma). I’m not a health policy expert so I’m not about to go through and discuss line-by-line the winners and losers in this law (if you want a more in depth discussion: NPR, Washington Post, and PBS have all written articles on the law).

There’s one piece of the law that I am particularly thrilled about: $1 billion over 2 years for treatment for opioid addiction. That’s rights billion, with a “B”. The money is to be distributed to states in the form of block grants (block grants are in essence a large allocation of federal money to be used for a specific purpose given to states but the details of how that money is used is decided by the states themselves).

This is an unprecedented amount of funding earmarked exclusively to fight the opioid epidemic that is still raging in the US. The funding is to be used for expanding and increasing accessibility to treatment, such as life saving medication-assisted treatments such as methadone and buprenorphine. The federal money will also be used to train healthcare professionals to better care for people dealing with addiction, and a comparatively smaller amount for conducting research on how best to fight the epidemic, and other provisions.

I’ve written about methadone and buprenorphine and their effectiveness ad nauseam on this site and I am personally and thrilled to see a massive federal effort to increase access to these vital tools in the fight against the opioid crisis

The Cures Act comes on the heels of another promising piece of legislation, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), signed into law by President Obama on July 13, 2016. This law includes provisions to expand the availability of naloxone–the medication used to save people from the effects of opioid overdose–to first responders, improve prescription drug monitoring programs, make it easier for healthcare providers to administer, dispense, or prescribe medication-assisted treatments, and other provisions.

The combination of these two pieces of legislation is a promising and much needed initial federal response.

However, this huge boost in funds for treatment in the Cures Act is only for 2-years. President Trump’s budget for FY18 would add $500 million for opioid addiction but most analysts think this is just a sneaky way of making it seem as if he’s supporting addiction treatment when the money has already been written in as part of the Cures Act. Further, his cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services (which contains the NIH and other agencies that administer the Cures and CARA laws) would make it difficult to launch any type of  effective response to the crisis.

Regardless of how things shake out, Trump’s massive cuts for everything that’s not the Department of Defense will likely hurt the fight against the opioid epidemic too. The real question is by how much?

 

5 Facts on the Opioid Epidemic: National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week

Spilled prescription medication --- Image by © Mark Weiss/Corbis
Spilled prescription medication — Image by © Mark Weiss/Corbis

Well, I’m a little late to the punch on this one but National Drug and Alcohol Facts week has been going and ends tonight. This public awareness campaign is now in it’s seventh year and is all about shattering the myths about addiction.ndafw_logoI might as well throw my belated hat in the ring and share 5 facts about the opioid epidemic.

Fact #1: The opioid epidemic in the U.S. has hit all demographic groups, regardless of race, gender, age, location, or socioeconomic status.

Fact #2: Prescription opioid pain medications like oxycodone can be just as addictive as heroin, even if taken as prescribed.

Fact #3: There is no scientific evidence that prescription opioids are effective at managing chronic pain; they are extremely effect for short-term, acute pain.

Naloxone_(1)Fact #4: Naloxone is a drug that counters the effects of opioids and can immediately reverse an overdose; you cannot get addicted to naloxone.

Fact #5: Buprenorphine and methadone are opioids that can help a person to fight their heroin addiction by satisfying their craving for the drug.

To learn more, here’s a short “Best of” from Dr. Simon Says Science on the Opioid Epidemic. Check out the posts below for oodles of info on opioids.

  1. What is naloxone? Should it be available over the counter?
  2. The CDC Fights Back Against the Opioid Epidemic
  3. Is Methadone an Effective Treatment for Heroin Addiction? YES!
  4. Morphine and Oxycodone Affect the Brain Differently
  5. Important: CDC Releases Report on Heroin Epidemic
  6. Methadone Maintenance Therapy Works-End of Story
  7. Paper Review-Initiation into Injection Drug Use and Prescription Opioids
  8. New Review Paper-The Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic

 

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) Calls for an End to the “War on Drugs”

war-on-drugs-no

A recent editorial in the British Medial Journal (the BMJ) has called for an end to the “War on Drugs”, which costs about $100 Billion/year and has failed to prevent both drug use and drug proliferation.

The article points out how the “War on Drugs”, the term used to collectively describe the laws penalizing drug use, has had a wide-range of negative effects. For example, the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world and about half of those arrests are due to drug-related arrests.

The health effects have been drastic as well. Stigma against opioid replacement therapies like methadone has resulted in increased deaths due to opioid overdose in countries that limit access. Stigma and discrimination against addicts, as well of fear of punishment for for usage, often leads away from health care services to unsafe drug-use practices that can spread HIV and Hepatitis C, and other unintended poor-health outcomes.

Importantly, the editors call for rational, evidence-based, drug-specific approach to regulation and strong involvement of  the scientific and medical communities. Obviously, the risks of something like marijuana are much lower than for heroin but how will drug policy reflect this? Research is required to support any efforts in order to identify the best practices and strategies.

The editors point out that a recent article in the Lancet “concluded that governments should decriminalise minor drug offences, strengthen health and social sector approaches, move cautiously towards regulated drug markets where possible, and scientifically evaluate the outcomes to build pragmatic and rational policy.”

Above all, a change in drug policy must benefit human health and there will be no “one size fits all” approach. The road ahead is difficult but one thing is certain, the road that led us here is a dead end. The “War on Drugs” has failed; the call now is to develop a national and international drug policy that won’t.

The Consequences of Childhood Abuse Last Until Adulthood: What are the Implications for Society?

(© Derek Simon 2015)
(© Derek Simon 2015)

One of the great questions in the addiction field is why do some people become full-blown addicts while other people can use drugs occasionally without progressing to anything more serious? One part the answer definitely has to do with the drug itself. For example, heroin causes a more intensely pleasurable high than cocaine and people that try heroin are more likely to become addicted to it than cocaine. But that’s not the whole story.

I’ve written previously about how a negative, stressful environment can have long-lasting negative impacts on the development of a child’s brain (also known as early-life stress of ELS). ELS such as childhood abuse (physical or sexual) and neglect can increase the risk for a whole host of problems as an adult such as depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and of course drug and alcohol abuse. There’s even a risk for more physical ailments like obesity, migraines, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and more.

Childhood abuse/neglect = psychological and physical problems as an adult.

Attitudes towards childhood development have certainly changed! Child coal miners ca. 1911 (wikipedia.org).
Attitudes towards childhood development have certainly changed! Child coal miners ca. 1911 (wikipedia.org).

This idea doesn’t sound too controversial but believe it or not, the idea that a bad or stressful situation as a child would do anything to you as an adult was laughed away as not possible. It’s only within the last decade or so that a wealth of research has supported this idea that ELS can physically change the brain and that these changes can last through the abused child’s entire life.

This recent review paper (published in the journal Neuron) is an excellent, albeit technical, summary of dozens research papers done on this subject and the underlying biology behind their findings.

Paradise lost childhood abuse review 2016 title

I especially love the quotes the author included at the beginning of the article:

Paradise lost childhood abuse review 2016 quotes

And even more recently, yet another research paper has come out that highlights how important childhood is for the development of the brain and how a stressful childhood environment can impact the function of a person as an adult.

Childhood abuse paper 2016

This most recent report, published in the journal Neuropscyhopharmacology concludes that early childhood abuse affects male and females differently. That is to say that the physical changes that occur in the brain are distinct for men and women who were abused as children.

Studies like this one are done by examining the brains of adults who were abused as kids and then comparing the activity or structure of different parts of the brain to the brains of adults who were not abused. The general technique of examining the structure or activity of the brain in a living human being is called neuroimaging and includes a range of techniques such as MRI, PET, fMRI, and others. (I’ve written about some of these techniques before. In fact, the development of better methods to image the brain is a huge are of research in the neuroscience field).

However, this study did not examine behavioral differences in the subjects, but as I said above, a great number of many other studies have looked at the psychological consequences of ELS. But this paper is really primarily interested in the gender differences in the brains of adults that have been abused as kids.

*Note: the following discussion is entirely my own and is not mentioned or alluded to by the author’s of this study at all.

This work—and the many studies that preceded it—has important implications because as a society, we have to realize that part of our personality/intelligence/character/etc. is determined by our genetics while the other part totally depends on the environment we are born into. I don’t want to extrapolate too much but the idea that childhood abuse can increase the risk of psychological problems as an adult also supports the broader notion that a great deal of a person’s success is determined by entirely random circumstances.

The_ACE_Pyramid
The Adverse Consequences Pyramid perfectly illustrates how ELS/abuse/neglect (the bottom of the pyramid) leads to much greater problems in later life. (wikimedia.org).

The science shows that a child born into a household rife with abuse will have more chance of suffering from a psychological problem (such as addiction) as an adult than someone who was born into a more stable life. The psychological problem could hurt that person’s ability to study in school or to hold down a job. And the tragic irony, of course, is that no child gets to choose the conditions under which they are born. A child, born completely without a choice of any kind over whether or not he or she will be abused, can still suffer the consequences of it (and blame for it) as an adult.

As a society, we often always blame a person’s failures as brought on by his or her own personal failings, but what if a person’s childhood plays an important role in why that person might have failed? How, as a society, do we incorporate this information into the idea of ourselves as having complete control over our minds and our destinies, when we very clearly do not? As an adult, how much of a person’s personality is really “their own problem” when research like this clearly show that ELS impacts a person well after the abuse has ended?

If the environment a child is born into has a tangible, physical effect on how the brain functions as an adult, than this problem is more than a social or an economic one: this is a matter of public health. Studies that support findings such as these provide empirical significance for public policy and public services for child care such as universal pre-K, increased availability of daycare, health insurance/medical access for children, increased and equitable funding for all public schools regardless of the economic situation of the district that school happens to be located in, etc.

One of our goals as a society (if indeed we believe ourselves to be a functioning society…the success of Donald Trump’s candidacy raises some serious doubts…but I digress) is the improvement of the lives of ALL of our citizens and securing the prosperity of the society for future generations. Reducing childhood poverty and abuse quite literally could help secure the future generations themselves and improve the ability of any child to grow up to become a successful and productive adult.

Public programs are essential because the unfortunate reality for many people born into poverty is that they must work all the time at low paying jobs in order to simply survive and may not be able to give their children all the advantages of a wealthier family. And this is where government and public policy step in, to correct the imbalances and unfairness inherent to the randomness of life and level the playing field for all peoples. Of course, the specific programs and policies to reduce childhood poverty and abuse would need to be evaluated empirically themselves to guarantee an important improvement in development of the brain and health of the child when he/she grows up.

And this is the real power of neuroscience and basic scientific research papers like this one. Research into how our brains operate in real-life situations reveal a side of our minds and our personalities that we never may have considered before and the huge implications this can have for society. The brain is a complex machine and just like other machines it can be broken.

Of course, we shouldn’t extrapolate too much and say that, for example, a drug addict who was abused as a child is not responsible for anything they’ve ever done in between. But is important to recognize all the mitigating factors at play in a person’s success and simply dismiss someone’s problems as “their own personal responsibility.” As a neuroscientist, I might argue that that phrase and the issues behind it are way more nuanced than the how certain politicians like to use it.

Special endnote Due to some recent shifts in my career, Dr. Simon Says Science will be expanding the content that I write about. Addiction and neuroscience will still be prominently featured but I plan to delve into a variety of other topics that I find interesting and sharing opinions that I think are important. I hope you will enjoy the changes! Thanks very much!

 

What is naloxone? Should it be available over the counter?

Naloxone_(1)

New blog post for addictionblog on naloxone, an antidote for opioid overdoses.

Read my new post here!

Methadone vs Buprenorphine: Which is Better for Treating Heroin Addiction?

Check out my new post for addictionblog!

The CDC Fights Back Against the Opioid Epidemic

2000px-US_CDC_logo.svg

The CDC has released important information on dealing with the prescription opioid pain medication and heroin epidemic. Opioids are a class of drugs that include pain medications such as morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone, fentanyl and others and the illegal drug heroin. I’ve spoken a great deal about this problem in various other posts (see here here here and especially here and here). Just to summarize some of most disturbing trends: the US is experiencing a surge in deaths due to overdose on opioids (overdoses/year due to opioids are now greater than fatalities from car crashes), virtually all demographics (age groups, income levels, gender, race) are affected, and many people addicted to opioid pain pills transition to heroin and as such, a huge increase in heroin abuse is also occurring; teenagers and adolescents are especially hard hit. The CDC’s report, released on Friday, March 18 provides a thorough review of the clinical evidence around prescription opioid pain medications and makes 12 recommendations to help control the over-prescription of these powerful drugs in attempt to reduce the amount of overdose deaths and addiction.

Read the full report.

I finally got around to reading the whole thing and am happy to summarize its main analyses and findings. While the report is intended for primary health care providers and clinicians, the report’s findings are important for anyone suffering from short or long-term pain and the risks vs benefits posed by opioids.

But before I dive into the meat of the report, I wanted to clarify an important issue about addiction to prescription opioids. A false narrative exists that those suffering from addiction are “drug seekers” and it is this group of people that is duping doctors in prescribing them too many opioids while good patients that take opioids as directed are not over dosing or becoming addicted. It’s important to remember that opioids are so powerful anyone that takes them runs the risk of overdosing or becoming addicted after repeated use. Most people suffering from addiction and overdoses during the current prescription opioid epidemic are people that used opioids medically and not for recreation. This is true for youths prescribed opioids for a high-school sports injury, and older patients prescribed opioids for chronic back pain, and many other “regular” people. The CDC released this report to help fight back against the over-prescription of opioids and the severe risks that accompany their use. Doctors and patients alike need to be aware of the risks vs benefits of opioids if they decide to use them for pain therapy.

Hydrocodone (wikimedia.org)
Hydrocodone (wikimedia.org)

The CDC’s report had three primary goals:

  1. Identify relevant clinical questions related to prescribing of opioid pain medications.
  2. Evaluate the clinical and contextual evidence that addresses these questions
  3. Prepare recommendations based on the evidence.

Two types of evidence were used in preparation of the report: direct clinical evidence and indirect evidence that supports various aspects of the clinical evidence (contextual evidence). Studies included in the analysis ranged from high quality randomized control studies (the gold standard for evaluating clinical effectiveness) to more observational studies (not strong, direct evidence but useful information nonetheless).

The report identified five central questions regarding the concerns over opioids:

  1. Is there evidence of effectiveness of opioid therapy in long-term treatment of chronic pain?
  2. What are the risks of opioids?
  3. What differences in effectiveness between different dosing strategies (immediate release versus long-acting/extended release)?
  4. How effective are the existing systems for predicting the risks of opioids (overdose, addiction, abuse or misuse) and assessing those risks in patients?
  5. What is the effect of prescribing opioids for acute pain on long-term use?

Based on a close examination of the clinical evidence from a number of published studies, the CDC found the following answer to these questions.

  1. There is no evidence supporting the benefits of opioids at managing chronic pain. Opioids are only useful for acute (less than 3 days) pain and for cancer pain or end-or-life pain treatment.
  2. Opioids have numerous risks such as abuse and addiction, overdose, fractures due to falling in some older patients, car crashes due to impairments, and other problems. The longer opioids are used the greater these risks.
  3. There is no difference in effectiveness between immediate release opioids and long-acting or extended release formulation. The evidence suggests the risk for overdose is greater with long-acting and extended-release opioids.
  4. No currently available monitoring methods or systems are capable of completely predicting or identifying risk for overdose, dependence, abuse, or addiction but severak methods may be effective at helping to evaluate these risk factors.
  5. The use of opioids for treating acute pain increases the likelihood that they will be sued long-term (most likely because of tolerance and dependence).
Oxycodone (wikimedia.org)
Oxycodone (wikimedia.org)

The CDC also examined what they called contextual evidence or studies that didn’t directly answer the primary clinical questions but still provided valuable, if indirect, information about treatment of pain with/without opioids.

  • Non-medication based therapies like physical therapy, exercise therapy, psychological therapies, etc. can be effective at treating chronic pain for a number of conditions.
  • Non-opioid pain medications such as acetaminophen, NSAIDs, Cox-2 inhibitors, anti-convulsants, and anti-depressants (in some instances) were also effective in treating chronic pain for various conditions and have fewer dangers than opioids.
  • Long-acting opioids increase the risk for overdose and addiction. Higher doses of opioids also increase the risk for overdose.
  • Co-prescription of opioids with benzodiazepines greatly increases the risk of overdoses.
  • Many doctors are unsure of how to talk to their patients about opioids and their benefits vs risks and most patients don’t know what opioids even are.
  • The opioid epidemic costs billions of dollars in medical and associated costs. Its estimated  costs due to treatment of overdose alone is $20.4 billion.

Many other findings and important pieces are information were reported but too many to list here.

Based on all results of the analysis the CDC came up with 12 recommendations in three broad categories. I’ll briefly discuss each recommendation.

Category 1: Determining when to initiate or continue opioids for chronic pain.

  • Recommendation 1: Non-pharmacologic (medication-based) therapy and non-opioid pharmacologic therapy are preferred for chronic pain.
    • The risks of overdose and addiction from long-term use of opioids is very high and benefits for actually treating pain are very low for most people. Therefore, other safer and more-effective treatments should be use first. The discussion of the risks vs benefits needs to be made clear by the patient’s doctor.
  • Recommendation 2: Before starting opioid therapy for chronic pain, clinicians should establish treatment goals with all patients, including realistic goals for pain and function
    • Opioids should be used for the shortest amount of time possible but if used for a long-term treatment, at the lowest effective dose.
    • If a patient suffers from an overdose or seems as if dependence or addiction is developing, a patient may need to be tapered off of opioids.
  • Recommendation 3: Before starting and periodically during opioid therapy, clinicians should discuss with patients known risks and realistic benefits of opioid therapy.
    • The risks are high for the use of opioids and it is necessary for doctors to keep their patients informed about these risks.
    • Doctors should be “be explicit and realistic about expected benefits from opioids, explaining that while opioids can reduce pain during short-term use, there is no good evidence that opioids improve pain or function with long-term use, and that complete relief of pain is unlikely.”

Category 2: Opioid selection, dosage, duration, follow-up, and discontinuation.

  • Recommendation 4: When starting opioid therapy, clinicians should prescribe immediate-release opioids instead of extended-release or long-acting opioids.
    • There appears to be no difference in effectiveness at treating pain between the different types of opioids but the long-acting opioids come with a greater risk for overdose and dependence.
    • Long-acting opioids should be reserved for cancer pain or end-of-life pain.
    • It’s important to note that “abuse-deterrent” does not mean that there is no risk for abuse, dependence, or addiction. These types of formulations are generally to prevent intravenous use (shooting up with a needle) but most problems with opioids occur as a result of normal, oral use.
  • Recommendation 5: When opioids are started, clinicians should prescribe the lowest effective dosage.
    • The higher the dose the greater the risk. A low dose may be sufficient to control the pain without risk for overdose or the development of dependence.
    • Opioids are often most effective in the short-term and may not need to be continued after 3 days.
    • If dosage needs to be increased, changes in pain and function in the patient should be re-evaluated afterwards to determine if a benefit has occurred.
    • Patients currently on high-dose long-term opioids for chronic pain may want to consider tapering down their dosage.
      • Tapering opioids can be challenging can take a long-time due to the physical and psychological dependence. Tapering should be done slowly to and the best course of dosage should be determined specifically for the patient.
    • Recommendation 6: Long-term opioid use often begins with treatment of acute pain. When opioids are used for acute pain, clinicians should prescribe the lowest effective dose of immediate-release opioids and should prescribe no greater quantity than needed.
      • Evidence suggests that using an opioid for acute pain can start a patient down a path of long-term use. This should attempted to be avoided by using a low dose if opioid is selected to treat acute pain.
      • Acute pain can often be effectively managed without opioids with non-medication-based therapies (like exercise, water aerobics, physical therapy, etc.) or non-opioid medications (like acetaminophen or NSAIDs).
    • Recommendation 7: Clinicians should evaluate benefits and harms with patients within 1-4 weeks of starting opioid therapy for chronic pain or of dose escalation.
      • Opioids are most effective for the first three days and possible up to a week. If long-term therapy is decided upon, treatment should regularly be reassessed and reevaluated (at least every 3 months for long-term therapy).

Category 3: Assessing risks and addressing harms of opioid use.

  • Recommendation 8: Before starting and periodically during continuation of opioid therapy, clinicians should evaluate risk factors for opioid-related harms. Clinicians should incorporate into the management plan strategies to mitigate risk, including considering offering naloxone.
    • Specific risk factors for the specific condition that patient is using opioids for should be considered when developing the treatment plan.
    • Naloxone blocks the effects of opioids and can immediately revive someone that has experienced an overdose. Naloxone should be offered to patients if a patient is using opioids at high-dose for long-term therapy or previously suffered an overdose.
  • Recommendation 9: Clinicians should review the patient’s history of controlled substance prescription using state prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) data to determine whether a patient is receive opioid dosages or dangerous combinations that put him or her at risk for overdose.
    • PDMPs are state-run databases that collect information on controlled prescription drugs dispensed by pharmacies and in some states, physicians too.
    • While the clinical evidence was unclear if PDMPs were accurate at predicting overdose or addiction, the contextual evidence supported that “most fatal overdoses were associated with patients receiving opioids from multiple prescribers and/or with patients receiving high total daily opioid dosage.”
    • PDMP should be consulted before beginning opioid therapy and during the course of treatment if used for long-term therapy and this data should be discussed with the patient.
    • However, PDMP data must be used cautiously as some patients are turned away from treatment that would otherwise have benefited.
  • Recommendation 10: (not a general recommendation but to be considered on a patient-by-patient basis) When prescribing opioids for chronic pain, clinicians should use urine drug testing before starting opioid therapy and consider urine drug testing at least annually to assess for prescribed medications as well as other controlled prescription drugs and illicit drugs.
    • Urine drug tests can reveal information about potential risks due to combinations with other drugs not reported by the patient (e.g. benzodiazepines, heroin).
    • Urine testing should become standard practice and should be done prior to starting opioids for chronic therapy.
    • Clinicians should make it clear that testing is intended for patient safety and is not intended to deprive the patient of therapy unnecessarily.
  • Recommendation 11: Clinicians should avoid prescribing opioid pain medication and benzodiazepines concurrently whenever possible.
    • Strong evidence suggests that many overdoses occurred in patients prescribed both benzodiazepines and opioids. The two should never be prescribed together if at all possible.
  • Recommendation 12: Clinicians should offer or arrange evidence-based treatment (usually medication-assisted treatment with buprenorphine or methadone in combination with behavioral therapies) for patients with opioid abuse disorder (addiction).
    • Many patients using opioids for chronic pain now may have become physically and psychologically addicted to them and should be offered treatment (estimated at 3-26% of patients using opioids for chronic pain therapy).
    • Methadone and buprenorphine are proven, safe, and effective-treatments that retain patients in treatment and that satisfy an opioid addict’s cravings, prevent relapse to abusing opioids/heroin, and allow the patient to live a normal life (read my blog post on methadone).
    • Behavioral therapy/individual counseling in combination with medication-based treatment may improve positive benefits of treatment even further.
    • However, access to these medications can be extremely limited in some communities due to availability (methadone is restricted to clinics and clinicians need certification in order to prescribe buprenorphine) or cost (treatment often is not covered by insurance).
    • Urine testing or PDMP data may help to reveal if a patient has become addicted and if so, treatment should be arranged.

In Summary, the main takeaways from the report are:

  • Opioids are associated with many risks such as overdose, abuse, dependence, addiction, and others (e.g. fractures from falling or car-crashes due to impairment).
  • No evidence exists that opioids are effective for treatment of chronic pain (with the exception of cancer and end-of-life pain).
  • Opioids are most effective for short term (3-7 days) and in immediate-release formulations.
  • Non-medication based therapies and non-opioid medications are preferred for treatment of chronic pain.
  • Doctors need to clearly explain the risks vs benefits of opioid therapy with their patients.
  • If decided as the best course of action for a particular patient, opioid therapy needs to be repeated re-evaluated to make sure it is still working to alleviate pain.
  • The prescription drug monitoring programs are useful tools that should be consulted prior to beginning therapy in order to help determine a patient’s history with opioids and risk for abuse or overdose.
  • Naloxone should be made available to patients using opioids for long-term therapy in order to prevent possible overdoses.
  • Access to medication-based treatments (methadone or buprenorphine) for dependent individuals should be provided.

Concluding Thoughts

In 1995 Purdue pharmaceuticals released OxyContin (oxycodone, one of the most common prescription opioid pain medications) and launched an enormous push for doctors to use opioids as the primary treatment for chronic pain. The enormous surge in in prescriptions of oxycodone (500% increase from 1999-2011) followed this marketing campaign. One of the most disturbing aspects revealed by the CDC’s report is that despite this surge in prescriptions, there is a complete lack of data on the effectiveness of opioids for long-term chronic pain therapy.

To be fair though, “Big Pharma” is not the sole culprit in this crisis. One argument is that pharma was responding to the need of clinicians for an increased demand by patients for management of chronic pain. It is very disturbing though that the push for the use of opioids for long-term management was initiated without any supporting evidence. This is another example of how medicine must be guided by evidence-based principles and not on personal beliefs and values or medical tradition and culture.

It’s important to remember that some patients do tolerate opioids well and these patients may find them beneficial at treating their chronic pain condition. The guidelines do stress frequent reevaluation of the benefits vs risks of opioids and for some patients benefits will outweigh the risks.

Finally, the CDC’s guidelines are not legally binding. These are recommendations and not laws or regulations. This means no doctors are not legally required to comply with any of the CDC’s recommendations. Hopefully some or all of these recommendations will be formalized into formal laws and regulations because many of them are extremely important in regulating these powerful and potentially dangerous drugs.

(Also check out the Diane Rehm Show’s hour-long discussion of the report. As usual, the show offers a high quality analysis and discussion from a panel of experts.)

Is Methadone an Effective Treatment for Heroin Addiction? YES!

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