A Very Uncharitable Pew Stem Cell Policy Report

By A. Rahman Ford, PNN Columnist

The Pew Charitable Trust – an institution whose stated mission is to “encourage democratic participation” in accordance with its founders’ “emphasis on innovation” – has released a 52-page report on the FDA’s framework for regulating stem cells and regenerative medicine.

Far from democratic, the report is really a thinly-veiled hit piece on stem cell therapy – one of the few fields of medicine where innovation is actually occurring.

“In many cases, there is little reliable evidence to support claims that these so-called stem cell treatments will have any effect—or indeed that they contain stem cells at all, despite the claims made about them,” the Pew report found. “Beyond the potential physical, psychological, and financial harm to patients, the widespread availability of these unproven treatments could negatively affect the entire field of regenerative medicine.”

On its surface, the report’s professed aims of consumer safety and regulatory clarity are laudable and necessary. However, the report is clearly biased against stem cell clinics and fails to seriously consider the patient perspective in policymaking. And Pew’s curious selection of regenerative medicine “stakeholders” not only diminishes the report’s legitimacy, but reveals troubling undercurrents of industry and agency influence.

Ambiguity and Controversy in Regulatory Policy

The Pew report begins innocuously enough, by laying out the general landscape of regenerative medicine, federal regulation and FDA guidance. The report correctly notes the “complex and rapidly evolving” nature of regenerative medicine, as well as the legal ambiguity that pervades the FDA’s jurisdiction over enforcement.

The report accurately describes the controversy surrounding the FDA’s interpretation of “minimal manipulation” and “homologous use” standards, which determine whether a stem cell product is exempt from the agency’s pre-market approval requirements. It also notes that the FDA’s examples of what uses do or do not meet those standards – as stated in its guidance – are “inconsistent or arbitrary.”

The report’s recommendations are entirely based on stakeholder interviews. All 11 stakeholders supported the FDA’s crackdown on clinics, even though there are plenty of critics who think it is stifling innovation and patient access to stem cell therapy.

Rather than reduce regulation, Pew suggests that additional stakeholders like the Federal Trade Commission, National Institutes of Health and state governments should assist the FDA in its crackdown, adding even more layers of regulatory control.

The report also endorses the online censorship campaign against clinics and goes out of its way to essentially classify Texas and Alabama as “rogue states” for trying to actually expand the availability of stem cell therapy.

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Rather than support a balanced and judicious approach that would both promote safety and innovations such as autologous stem cells, the report calls for “tighter control of the industry” to “lend legitimacy to the field and provide regulatory certainty, both of which are essential for developers seeking investment, as well as for payers that will eventually make insurance coverage decisions for these new treatments.”

To be sure, the resolution of regulatory ambiguity is a good thing for all parties. But the ambiguity should not be resolved in a manner that disadvantages the sick and disabled, as well as the small clinics that lack economic leverage to influence agency rule-making. Unfortunately, the Pew report privileges the wealth and influence of the healthcare industry in determining what policies are best. Patients and their interests are unceremoniously relegated to the back of the policy-making bus.

A Suspicious Selection of Stakeholders

As previously stated, the Pew report’s recommendations were derived from stakeholder interviews. Quite laughably, the report maintains that a “broad range of perspectives” were included. Of course, no practicing clinicians were included. Nor were any patient advocates interviewed. However, industry and academia were represented. In fact, one stakeholder was the former Chief Biotechnology Officer and Head of Scientific Strategy and Policy for Johnson & Johnson. Yes, that Johnson & Johnson.

The same Johnson & Johnson that, according to the New York Times, faces more than 100,000 lawsuits over its products. The same Johnson & Johnson that currently faces thousands of lawsuits over claims its baby powder has caused mesothelioma and ovarian cancer. The same Johnson & Johnson that recently agreed to pay a $117 million settlement for deceptive marketing of pelvic mesh implants and $8 billion for playing down the risks of the antipsychotic drug Risperdal. And yes, the same Johnson & Johnson that was found liable in the Oklahoma opioid trial.

So when the Pew report argues that stem cell clinics should be censored and persecuted for offering “dangerous” products and engaging in “deceptive” marketing practices, it is the absolute height of hypocrisy.

To make matters worse, that same former J&J “stakeholder” – who now sits on the board of biotech firm MacroGenics – worked for the FDA for 20 years reviewing and approving biologic products. This is the epitome of policymaking incest.

To appreciate the Pew report’s true motives, all one need do is peruse its references. The report’s end-notes are littered with citations to the work of the most public and commonly interviewed stem cell critics, all of whom are on the record as card-carrying regulationists.

Pew’s cherry-picking of sources reveals its true agenda. It is a meticulously-manicured industry-slanted propaganda piece masquerading as rational, objective stem cell policy.

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A. Rahman Ford, PhD, is a lawyer and research professional. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and the Howard University School of Law, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Howard Law Journal.

Rahman lives with chronic inflammation in his digestive tract and is unable to eat solid food. He has received stem cell treatment in China. 

The information in this column is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

The FDA v. Your Stem Cells: An Insider’s View

By A. Rahman Ford, PNN Columnist

Mark Berman, MD, is a key player in the escalating conflict between stem cell therapy providers and the Food and Drug Administration.

Berman is co-founder of the California Stem Cell Treatment Center, a California-based clinic that specializes in stromal vascular fraction (SVF) stem cells, which are autologous cells derived from adipose tissue --- a patient’s own body fat.

Berman and his partner are defendants in a federal lawsuit filed by the FDA. The lawsuit claims that SVF products are considered “drugs” and “biological products” under the  Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and thus subject to federal regulation.

In June of this year, a federal judge in Florida upheld the agency’s position in a similar lawsuit against another stem cell company.

Berman maintains that FDA regulations for autologous cells are illegal and wants to set the record straight on the motives behind the agency’s crackdown on stem cells generally and against him and his partner, specifically.

DR. MARK BERMAN

DR. MARK BERMAN

In Berman’s view, the FDA’s assault against autologous stem cells has far less to do with the health, safety and welfare of patients, and much more to do with three other factors:

  1. The pharmaceutical industry’s influence over FDA regulations.

  2. The unfairness of the FDA’s clinical trial process, which preserves the position of large companies at the expense of smaller ones.

  3. The medical establishment’s fear of the paradigm-shifting, market-disrupting effect of healing with one’s own stem cells.

Basic Training in Stem Cell Therapy

Berman was in many respects an accidental recruit to stem cell therapy. A cosmetic surgeon with a private practice in Beverly Hills since 1983, Berman is well known as one of the pioneers of facial rejuvenation using fat grafting.

In 2008, Berman was introduced to equipment developed by Dr. Hee Young Lee of Medikan that harvests fat in specialized syringes. Berman was intrigued and decided to purchase the equipment, which Dr. Lee said could also be used to isolate stem cells.

“Who knew? Plastic surgeons actually pioneered and advanced adipose stem cells,” says Berman.

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Over the next couple of years, Berman learned more about adipose-derived SVF and how to isolate it. He also started discussing stem cell trials on orthopedic cases with Dr. Tom Grogan, a colleague in orthopedic surgery.

After a fact-finding mission to Japan in 2010, Berman and Grogan agreed to see patients. One of those patients was Berman’s wife, Saralee, who had significant hip pain after years of running marathons. Saralee was treated with adipose-derived SVF and “has remained pain free to this day,” according to Berman.

Another patient came to Berman for a face lift and said she wanted to get it done because she was scheduled to have both knees replaced in the 2-3 months. Instead, Berman and Grogan treated her knees with SVF cells for free. She demonstrated marked improvement and long-term freedom from pain.

“After seven years, we did a touch-up procedure on her and she continues to be pain free and functional,” says Berman.

In 2010, Berman and urologist Elliot Lander, MD, founded the California Stem Cell Treatment Center. Although successful, Berman and Lander never thought their SVF business would last.

“We figured we’d be good for two or three years of service and then ‘cells in a bottle’ would come along and replace adipose-derived SVF,” Berman told PNN. “It turns out that personal cell therapy may be a massively transformative technology for a variety of reasons and we’re here to stay unless the FDA can illegally have their way with us to protect Pharma and Academia.”

Early on, Berman and Lander treated orthopedic conditions associated with chronic pain – arthritis, back pain and inflammatory conditions. Not only did their patients experience pain relief, they began reporting improvement in other ancillary ailments as well.

“We quickly realized that by filtering the SVF, we could provide the cells via an IV for any variety of conditions,” Berman recalls. “Acute concussion heals overnight. Chronic traumatic brain injury may improve in many cases. Parkinson’s frequently responds well. We’ve had some good response with multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and muscular dystrophy. ALS has not had good results. We’ve seen improvements with chronic heart conditions, COPD, and radiation necrosis following cancer treatments.”

Combating the ‘Unproven’ Disinformation Campaign

Their discoveries led Berman and Lander to publish a SVF safety study involving over 1,500 patients with various degenerative, inflammatory, and autoimmune conditions. They also formed the Cell Surgical Network, a network of physicians who use the same equipment and protocols taught by Berman and Lander. To date, the network has treated over 12,000 patients.

Berman maintains with conviction that “there’s no drug as safe as your own cells.” In fact, he and his family have all had successful personal stem cell treatments, as have most of the affiliate physicians in his network.

Yet news stories about “unproven stem cell procedures” persist. And Google recently went so far as to ban advertising for “unproven or experimental medical techniques,” including most stem cell therapies.

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“It is sad and ridiculous that we can safely and effectively treat many people right now, but we’ve been fighting this false press that stem cells are dangerous and unproven when there’s virtually no danger and plenty of proof,” Berman says. 

“Saying it’s unproven denies how science advances. Most science does not rely upon placebo trials, something Pharma routinely takes advantage of to get a new version of an old drug on the market to exploit the public.”

The FDA As Proxy for Big Pharma

Berman has a theory why he and his partner have become targets of the FDA. It has to do with the power and influence of the pharmaceutical industry.

“When corporations get so big, and in this case actually finance government agencies, they end up controlling them in a variety of ways. They have many inside people that can facilitate their needs, but they also have pushed the FDA to write draconian regulations to keep smaller players out of the club as much as possible,” Berman explained.

“Physicians have the obligation to try to help their patients when they can – not to sit around while some sanctimonious academics or Big Pharma or FDA regulatory people decide we can try,” he adds.

Berman poses an intriguing question.

“Isn’t it interesting that no major pharmaceutical company has applied for an IND (new drug application) for personal cell therapy?” he asks.

“The answer is obvious: because they can’t own it.”

Berman believes FDA regulations are designed to protect Big Pharma from competition.

The FDA has ignored clinicians’ and patients’ requests to be able to use their own cells for their own purposes. It’s absurd and it’s illegal.
— Dr. Mark Berman

“Surgeons used to perform a lot more coronary bypass surgery, but Pharma developed stents and drugs to compete for the same patients,” he says. “Pharma and academia are the only two voices that matter to the FDA. The FDA has ignored clinicians’ and patients’ requests to be able to use their own cells for their own purposes. It’s absurd and it’s illegal.”

Berman and Lander intend to fight the FDA in court to the very end. A hearing date was scheduled for this month, but has been postponed until early next year.

“They’re trying hard to ruin us through the press and through these extensively long and unfair court proceedings that have been dragging out for over a year. If it’s not clear, we’re fighting for the basic civil and constitutional rights of our patients,” Berman says.

“We should be achieving new heights in healthcare and freedom yet there are so many people more interested in controlling us than letting us naturally rise to thrive.”

A. Rahman Ford.jpg

A. Rahman Ford, PhD, is a lawyer and research professional. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and the Howard University School of Law, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Howard Law Journal.

Rahman lives with chronic inflammation in his digestive tract and is unable to eat solid food. He has received stem cell treatment in China. 

The information in this column is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Feds Target Online Pharmacies

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The FDA and DEA have sent warning letters to four online networks for illegally marketing unapproved and misbranded versions of opioid pain medication. The letters are the latest step in what appears to be an expanding federal and private crackdown on online pharmacies and websites that offer alternative health products and information.

The four online networks, which operate at least 10 websites, are Divyata, Euphoria Healthcare, JCM Dropship and Meds4U. The letters warn the companies to immediately stop selling illegal opioids to consumers.

“We cannot allow rogue online pharmacies to continue to fuel the crisis by illegally offering opioids for sale and circumventing the important safeguards that have been put in place for opioids to help protect the public health,” said acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless, MD.

The FDA has issued letters of this type before, but this is the first time the agency has jointly issued warning letters with the DEA. The companies were given 15 days to respond.

“You knowingly or intentionally use the Internet to advertise the sale of controlled substances by directing prospective buyers to Internet sellers of controlled substances who do not possess a valid modified DEA registration,” one letter warns.

“Therefore, your websites are operating in violation of United States law, which may be enforced through criminal penalties and civil enforcement.”

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The letter to Divyata alleges the company sells the opioid painkiller tramadol as an “agony reliever that ties with receptors of the mind and sensory system to diminish dimensions of torment.”

Euphoria Healthcare was warned for selling the opioid tapentadol under the name “Aspadol Tab” and claiming it is used “to treat moderate to severe pain that occurs for shorter to longer periods of time.” The FDA has never approved a drug called “Aspadol Tab.”

As PNN has reported, the FDA has previously cracked down on rogue online pharmacies selling counterfeit drugs or illegal medication. Often the websites reappear under new names or move offshore. As many as 35,000 online pharmacies operate worldwide. The vast majority are not in compliance with U.S. laws and many do not require a prescription, according to the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies.

The federal crackdown is not limited to opioids or prescription drugs. This month the Federal Trade Commission warned three companies selling CBD oils, tinctures, edibles and other products to stop making claims that CBD can be used to treat pain and other chronic illnesses.

Google Warns Online Publishers

Internet companies have also taken steps to reduce the flow of online traffic and advertising revenue to websites that offer alternative health information and products.

Today Google informed thousands of online publishers enrolled in its AdSense advertising partnership that it would restrict advertising on websites that promote or have content about recreational drugs, unapproved pharmaceuticals or supplements. The policy not only applies to illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine, but includes several alternative treatments for pain, such as marijuana, CBD, kratom and other herbal supplements.

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In effect, Google is telling online publishers their advertising revenue will be reduced or stopped if they provide information that Google considers inappropriate.

“Publisher restrictions identify content that is restricted from receiving certain sources of advertising. By content, we mean anything present on your page or app - including other advertisements and links to other sites or apps,” Google explained in a note to publishers.

“If your content is labeled with an inventory restriction, fewer advertising sources will be eligible to bid on it. In some cases this will mean that no advertising sources are bidding on your inventory and no ads will appear on your content.”

Pain News Network is a Google AdSense partner. We frequently publish content about kratom, CBD and other alternative pain treatments. It is unclear how Google’s advertising policy will affect PNN.

In addition to restrictions on advertising, recent changes to Google’s search engine algorithms have suppressed search results for hundreds of websites that offer alternative health information or products. As a result, many of these websites have already experienced a substantial drop in revenue and readers.

Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr and other online social networks have also recently suspended or deleted dozens of alternative health pages for containing what Facebook considers “false, misleading, fraudulent, or deceptive claims or content.”

Pinterest said it relies on governmental bodies to decide what is appropriate. “We rely on information from nationally and internationally recognized institutions, including the CDC and WHO, to help us determine if content violates these guidelines,” Pinterest explained in an email to a website that was banned.

PNN’s account with Pinterest was suspended without warning in June for violating the company’s “spam policies.”  Our account was reactivated a week later with an apology.

“Sorry that your account was suspended. Occasionally good accounts get caught in the mix when we're looking for spammy accounts,” Pinterest said in an email.

Feds Warn CBD Marketers Again

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has warned three companies that sell cannabidiol (CBD) oils, tinctures, edibles and other products to stop making claims that CBD can be used to treat pain and other chronic illnesses.

In letters to the companies, which the FTC is not identifying, the agency warned that it is illegal to advertise that a product can prevent, treat or cure illnesses without scientific evidence to support such claims.

One company’s website claims CBD “works like magic” to relieve “even the most agonizing pain.” Another company advertises CBD as a “miracle pain remedy” for both acute and chronic pain, including pain from cancer treatment and arthritis.

The FTC said the third company’s website promotes CBD gummies as highly effective at treating “the root cause of most major degenerative diseases, including arthritis, heart disease, fibromyalgia, cancer, asthma, and a wide spectrum of autoimmune disorders.” The company also claims its CBD creams and oils can relieve arthritis and fibromyalgia pain.

“In the letters, the FTC urges the companies to review all claims made for their products, including consumer testimonials, to ensure they are supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence,” the agency said in a statement.

The letters also warn that selling CBD products without substantiation could violate the FTC Act and may result in legal action. The companies were given 15 days to respond.

In March 2019, the FTC and Food and Drug Administration sent similar warning letters to three companies -- Nutra Pure, PotNetwork Holdings, and Advanced Spine and Pain — for making false and unsubstantiated health claims about a variety of CBD products.

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Nutra Pure, which makes a line of hemp oil, now has a lengthy disclaimer on its website stating that its products “have not been evaluated” by the FDA and that they “are not intended to diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure any disease.”

But when we posed as a customer in an online chat with “Kristen,” a NutraPure representative, we were assured that hemp oil can treat pain.  

Customer: “Do your products help treat pain?”

Kristen: “There are numerous studies showing CBD has the ability to provide therapeutic benefits in the treatment of various conditions, including chronic pain, arthritis, anxiety/depression, nausea, epilepsy, fibromyalgia, glaucoma and many other ailments.”

Customer: “Which one of your products helps treat fibromyalgia?”

Kristen: “We recommend starting with our 300 or 600 mg bottle.”

Customer: “Will that help joint pain?”

Kristen: “They are like an all in one type product.”

Customer: “What does that mean?”

Kristen: “One product helps with all types of conditions.”

Customer: “Including pain?”

Kristen: “Yes.”

CBD is a non-psychoactive chemical compound derived from the cannabis plant. Much of it comes from hemp – a less potent strain of marijuana – that was legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. There are literally thousands of CBD products on the market being sold online and over-the-counter without a prescription, often with dubious claims about their health benefits.

FDA and FTC enforcement actions against CBD marketers are sporadic and have usually only targeted small companies. But an FDA warning letter in July to Curaleaf, a Massachusetts company that sells CBD products nationwide, had an immediate impact on one large retailer. CVS Pharmacy pulled most Curaleaf products from its stores.

FDA Warns Curaleaf About Marketing of CBD Products

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is warning a large cannabis company to stop making unsubstantiated claims that its products can treat chronic pain, cancer, opioid withdrawal and other medical conditions.

An FDA warning letter was sent to Curaleaf, a Massachusetts-based company that sells cannabidiol (CBD) products online and in stores, and operates dispensaries in a dozen states. CVS Health responded to the FDA letter by pulling some Curaleaf products off its store shelves.

“Selling unapproved products with unsubstantiated therapeutic claims — such as claims that CBD products can treat serious diseases and conditions — can put patients and consumers at risk by leading them to put off important medical care. Additionally, there are many unanswered questions about the science, safety, effectiveness and quality of unapproved products containing CBD,” acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless, MD, said in a statement. “Consumers should beware of purchasing or using any such products.”

Curaleaf, which claims to be the largest cannabis operator in the United States, makes an extensive line of CBD lotions, creams, oils and skin patches.

It recently began marketing a line of CBD products for pets to treat pain, spasms, anxiety and inflammation in animals.

The FDA’s warning letter to Curaleaf cited a number of unapproved marketing claims made by the company online and in social media, including:

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  • “CBD was effective in killing human breast cancer cells.”

  • “CBD has been linked to the effective treatment of Alzheimer’s disease…”

  • “CBD is being adopted more and more as a natural alternative to pharmaceutical-grade treatments for depression and anxiety.”

  • “CBD can also be used in conjunction with opioid medications, and a number of studies have demonstrated that CBD can in fact reduce the severity of opioid-related withdrawal and lessen the buildup of tolerance.”

  • “CBD oil is becoming a popular, all-natural source of relief used to address the symptoms of many common conditions, such as chronic pain, anxiety … ADHD.”

The FDA gave Curaleaf 15 working days to respond. Failure to correct the violations could result in legal action, including seizure of the company’s products.

“Curaleaf is committed to the highest standards of quality and compliance, and will work collaboratively with the FDA to resolve all issues addressed in the agency's letter,” the company said in a statement.

“Compliance is a top priority for Curaleaf and the Company is fully committed to complying with FDA requirements for all of the products that it markets. We can affirm that nothing in the letter raises any issues concerning the quality and consistency of any Curaleaf product or calls into question the high safety standards of the Company's cultivation and manufacturing processes.”

CBD Products Loosely Regulated

Unlike prescription drugs approved by the FDA, the manufacturing process for CBD products is not subject to FDA review, and there has been no FDA evaluation of their effectiveness, proper dosage, how they could interact with drugs, or whether they have side effects.

Despite the lack of regulatory oversight, there has been explosive growth for CBD companies and their products are starting to appear in mainstream stores. In March, CVS Pharmacy and Walgreens started selling CBD lotions, tinctures, edibles and lozenges — including some made by Curaleaf.

“The only Curaleaf products we are selling are its CBD lotion and CBD transdermal patches,” CVS said in a statement. “Following the FDA’s warning letter to Curaleaf, we will be removing these items from our CBD offering.”  

The FDA sent similar warning letters to three cannabis operators in April. Until now, the enforcement actions have been sporadic and only targeted small companies.

“We will continue to work to protect the health and safety of American consumers from products that are being marketed in violation of the law through actions like those the FDA is taking today. At the same time, we also recognize the potential opportunities and significant interest in drug and other consumer products containing CBD,” said FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner Amy Abernethy, MD.

“We understand this is an important national issue with public health impact and of interest to American hemp farmers and many other stakeholders. The agency has a well-established pathway for drug development and drug approvals, and we remain committed to evaluating the agency’s regulatory policies related to other types of CBD products.”

The FDA held a public hearing on the issue in May, and opened a docket for public comments to obtain scientific data about the safety, manufacturing, quality, marketing, labeling and sale of CBD products. Nearly 4,500 comments were received. The agency plans to report on its progress this fall.

This week Curaleaf announced it will acquire GR Companies, a large cannabis retailer, in a cash and stock deal valued at $875 million. Curaleaf said the purchase solidifies it’s position as “the world's largest cannabis company by revenue and the largest in the U.S. across key operating metrics.”

FDA Approves First Generics for Lyrica

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the first generic versions of Lyrica (pregabalin), a medication widely prescribed for the treatment of fibromyalgia, diabetic neuropathy and other types of chronic pain.

Lyrica has been a blockbuster drug for Pfizer since its approval in 2004, generating revenue of $4.6 billion annually. The recent expiration of Pfizer’s patent on Lyrica opened the door to much cheaper generic competitors.

A one year supply of Lyrica currently costs about $2,800 in the United States, according to Healthcare Bluebook, while a similar dose of pregabalin under the UK’s National Health Service costs about $74.

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“Today’s approval of the first generics for pregabalin, a widely-used medication, is another example of the FDA’s longstanding commitment to advance patient access to lower cost, high-quality generic medicines,” Janet Woodcock, MD, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said in a statement.

“The FDA requires that generic drugs meet rigorous scientific and quality standards. Efficiently bringing safe and effective generics to market so patients have more options to treat their conditions is a top priority for the FDA.”

The FDA granted approvals for generic pregabalin to 9 drug makers: Alembic Pharmaceuticals, Alkem Laboratories, Amneal Pharmaceuticals, Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories, InvaGen Pharmaceuticals, MSN Laboratories, Rising Pharmaceuticals, Sciegen Pharmaceuticals, and Teva Pharmaceuticals.

Pfizer’s patent for Lyrica CR — an extended released version of Lyrica — remains in effect until April, 2021.

Side Effects

The most common side effects for Lyrica are dizziness, somnolence, dry mouth, swelling, blurred vision, weight gain and difficulty concentrating. Lyrica’s warning label also cautions users that the drug may cause suicidal thoughts in about 1 in 500 people.

Pregabalin is classified as Schedule V controlled substance in the U.S., which means it has a low potential for abuse. In recent years, however, there is growing concern that pregabalin and its sister drug gabapentin (Neurontin) are being abused and overprescribed. The drugs were recently classified as controlled substances in the UK.

Pregabalin and gabapentin were originally developed to prevent epileptic seizures, but their use has tripled over the past 15 years as more doctors prescribed them off-label as “safer” alternatives to opioids.

A recent study in the British Medical Journal found the drugs increase the risk of suicide, overdose and traffic accidents in younger people. The risks were strongest for those taking pregabalin and were most pronounced among adolescents and young adults aged 15 to 24. Patients aged 55 and older taking gabapentinoids were not at greater risk.



Researchers Call Kratom a Public Health Threat

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The herb kratom poses a public health threat and should not be sold as a dietary supplement, according to a team of researchers who say kratom should be regulated like a prescription drug because it has “opioid-like” qualities.

"Although it is not as strong as some other prescription opioids, kratom does still act as an opioid in the body," said William Eggleston, PharmD, a professor of pharmacy practice at Binghamton University in New York. "In larger doses, it can cause slowed breathing and sedation, meaning that patients can develop the same toxicity they would if using another opioid product.

“Our findings suggest kratom is not reasonably expected to be safe and poses a public health threat due to its availability as an herbal supplement.”

Eggleston is lead author of a recent study published in the journal Pharmacotherapy that looked at the growing number of calls about kratom to U.S. Poison Control Centers. In recent years, millions of Americans have discovered kratom and use it to self-treat chronic pain, addiction, anxiety and depression.

Eggleston and his colleagues identified 2,312 kratom exposures in the National Poison Data System (NPDS) from 2011 to 2018, with 935 cases involving kratom as the only substance.

The chief complaint for many of the calls was that kratom caused agitation, tachycardia (rapid heartbeat), drowsiness, vomiting and confusion. Infrequent but serious side effects included seizure, withdrawal, hallucinations, respiratory depression, coma, and cardiac or respiratory arrest.

KRATOM CALLS TO U.S. POISON CONTROL CENTERS

SOURCE: AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF POISON CONTROL CENTERS

‘Significant Toxicity’

“Despite kratom’s growing popularity as a safe and natural self-treatment option for patients with OUD, our findings suggest there are concerns for significant toxicity. Reports of kratom exposures to the NPDS are rising and have already been associated with serious opioid toxicities, including seizures, agitation, and death,” researchers reported.

“According to the United States Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, herbal and dietary supplements must contain ingredients that are reasonably expected to be safe. Our findings repudiate the idea that kratom meets this criterion. Kratom’s opioid effects put patients at risk for withdrawal, respiratory depression, and death.”

But critics say calls to poison centers are anecdotal, misleading and a poor choice for research.

“The data drawn from the Poison Control Centers are notoriously unreliable, inasmuch as they are anecdotal reports from the public that are gathered and reported in an unscientific fashion,” said Max Karlin, a spokesman for the Kratom Information & Resource Center. “In the absence of good data, you just end up with a garbage-in, garbage-out situation.”

“All the Eggelston paper shows is that the anti-kratom bias is deeply entrenched in conventional medical, pharmacological and government sectors,” said Jane Babin, PhD, a molecular biologist, patent lawyer and consultant to the American Kratom Association (AKA). “It seems to be more of the same unscientific attack on kratom. I don’t see anything in this that warrants their conclusion.

“AKA now estimates that there are 16 million kratom users in the U.S. based on data from Indonesia on how much kratom is exported to the U.S. annually. 2,312 exposures out of 16 million users is a pretty low percentage of users who have anything to report to poison control.”

The 2,312 calls about kratom over an 8-year period pale in comparison to calls about other substances. In the first six months of this year alone, over 13,400 calls were made to U.S. poison centers about children ingesting hand sanitizers or laundry detergent packets.

Kratom Scheduling

Kratom comes from the leaves of a tree that grows in southeast Asia, where it has been used for centuries as a natural stimulant and pain reliever. As a dietary supplement, kratom is loosely regulated in the United States, although federal agencies are engaged in a protracted public campaign against its use.

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The FDA says kratom is addictive, has opioid-like qualities and is not approved for any medical condition. The agency has also released studies showing salmonella bacteria and heavy metals contaminating a relatively small number of kratom products. 

The CDC recently linked kratom to dozens of fatal overdoses -- although multiple substances were involved in nearly all of those deaths.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has recommended to the DEA that kratom be classified as a Schedule I controlled substance – alongside heroin and marijuana — which would effectively ban it nationwide.

“At some level, we do need to have better control over it,” says study co-author Lewis Nelson, MD, a Professor of Emergency Medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “We know that (kratom) has two big uses out there. One of them is for people to get high and the other one is to treat opioid withdrawal. Those are the real reasons people use it.

“Whether its an opioid or not an opioid, people use it do things that they would typically do with opioids, like pain, get high, and treat withdrawal. I think empirically we know it has enough of an opioid-like character that it’s being marketed and used that way.”

Lewis said kratom should be scheduled as a controlled substance, but not under Schedule I. He thinks it may be more appropriate to classify kratom as a Schedule II or III drug, where it could still be available by prescription.

“I would like to see that. If they could show this drug has benefits and we could understand and moderate the risk, I don’t see why it couldn’t be used like any other drug,” said Lewis, who is a longtime critic of opioid prescribing.

Let’s create a safe product and let’s get it appropriately scheduled. Have it available by prescription. I don’t have a problem with that.
— Dr. Lewis Nelson

“Prove it works. Let’s create a safe product and let’s get it appropriately scheduled. Have it available by prescription. I don’t have a problem with that.”

But getting kratom approved by the FDA as a prescription drug would require years of clinical studies. Pharmaceutical companies may be reluctant to fund research on a natural substance that they may not be able to patent. And kratom users, long accustomed to buying it online or in smoke shops, dislike the idea of needing a doctor’s prescription.

In a 2016 PNN survey of over 6,400 kratom users, nearly 98 percent said they wanted kratom to remain available as a dietary supplement.  Over 70 percent said pharmaceutical companies should not be allowed to produce kratom-based drugs.  And nearly three out of four dispute the notion that it’s possible to get high from kratom.  

Lewis remains skeptical that people are not using kratom recreationally and that it should remain on the market as a dietary supplement.  

“I find it a little disingenuous to say we should leave this potentially unsafe drug on the market unregulated, just because some people already use it,” he told PNN.