In 2013, an estimated 16,235 Americans overdosed and died from opioid painkillers — powerful prescription drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin. An estimated 2.1 million Americans suffers from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers.
It’s become enough of a problem that President Barack Obama mentioned prescription drug abuse as one of his top priorities in the first minutes of the State of the Union address.
With opioid medication being one of the most effective pain management methods and with abuse so rampant, scientists and regulators are trying to find the best ways to solve the problem of abuse.
At the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco this week, I got a glimpse of what that solution might look like: An indestructible pill.
Seriously. I tried breaking the pills that are in development at Egalet, including one like those in the picture above which is an extended release form of oxycodone. I wasn’t offered any tools to take a whack at the pill, but I could tell: These pills are no match for the mere reporter.
And it’s not just hands that can’t crumble the pill into a powder form. Egalet has tested it against hammers, blenders — virtually anything someone might have laying around the house that could be used to crush a little pill. All to no avail. Even dissolving the pill or melting it won’t quite work: It just converts into a not-so-pleasant smelly goop that can’t fit into a syringe, Egalet CEO Bob Radie said.
For the most part, prescription pain medications are abused through either snorting or injecting the drug after a person has already graduated from taking multiple pills instead of the recommended dose. But that requires changing the format of the drug from a pill to a powder, or melting it into a solution. But with a virtually indestructible pill, that manipulation can’t happen.
Here are some coffee grinders that lost their lives trying to crush Egalet’s pills.
Here’s how Egalet’s technology works: The company uses injection moulding, a process typically associated with plastics.
“The same machinery that’s used to make LEGOs, car bumpers, plastic bottles, no one’s ever tried to take that and actually make an orally delivered pill before,” Radie said. As weird as it sounds to ingest plastics, Radie said they’re only using polymers that are safe to eat — the same ones found in vitamins and pills that are already available.
Egalet filed a new drug application with the FDA to get its extended release version of morphine approved in December 2015, with hopes that it will be approved by the end of this year and its extended release version of oxycodone not far behind that.
While making an indestructible pill isn’t the single thing that’s going to bring down the rate of prescription drug abuse, it has potential.
Egalet’s not the only company seeking to develop abuse-deterrent pain medications. So far, there are six types of drugs that have already been approved to try to keep the medication from being abused. Some try to keep abuse from happening by adding an irritant that makes your nose burn if you try to snort the powder, others when manipulated cancel out the euphoric effect you get from putting your brain in contact with an opioid.
Others still are taking Egalet’s approach of keeping the pill from being broken down at all.
The way this indestructible pill model works, Radie said, could expand it to other areas as well, such as making sure patients take the full dose of their medication rather than half to stretch out the prescription.
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