Forced Opioid Tapering: ‘The Next Great Experiment’

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Last month the Food and Drug Administration warned doctors not to abruptly discontinue or rapidly taper patients on opioid pain medication. The agency said it had received reports of “serious harm” to patients who’ve been suddenly cutoff, including withdrawal symptoms, uncontrolled pain, psychological distress and suicide.  

A new study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment shows just how common the practice is. And how millions of pain patients are being subjected to a public health experiment with hardly anyone keeping track of what happens to them.

“The United States went through a great ‘experiment’ of expanding treatment of pain with opioids which has proved to be disastrous for public health. We have entered the next great ‘experiment’ of discontinuing opioid medications among the millions of Americans who are currently taking them,” said lead author Tami Mark, PhD, senior director of behavioral health at RTI International, a non-profit research institute.

“Little is known about how many individuals are tapering off opioid medications, whether observed tapering follows any… guidelines, and the extent to which rapid tapering is associated with negative consequences.”

Mark and her colleagues looked at medical and pharmacy claims for nearly 500 Medicaid patients in Vermont who had high doses of opioid medication discontinued from 2013 to 2017.

All of the patients were prescribed a daily dose of at least 120 MME (morphine milligram equivalent) and over half had been on that high dose for over a year. 

Although most clinical guidelines recommend a “go slow” approach to opioid tapering – especially for patients on high doses – only 5 percent of the Vermont patients had a tapering period longer than 90 days. The vast majority (86%) were rapidly tapered in 21 days or less, including about half who were cut off from opioids without any tapering.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that patients on opioids be tapered only 10% a week, with even slower tapers of 10% a month for long-term users. Had those guidelines been applied in Vermont, most tapers would have taken up to a year to complete.

Half of Tapered Patients Hospitalized

What happened to the patients who were cut off? Nearly half were hospitalized or had an emergency room visit for an “opioid-related adverse event” -- a medical code that can mean anything from severe withdrawal symptoms to acute respiratory failure. For tapered patients, the risk of being hospitalized was reduced by 7% for each additional week of tapering.

Researchers don’t know how many of the discontinued patients committed suicide or how many were referred to addiction treatment. Notably, less than one percent received medication assistance treatment (MAT) such as Suboxone.

The study did not look at why patients were taken off opioids or who initiated the discontinuation. But researchers believe some of the rapid discontinuations “may be due to a breakdown in the clinical relationship between physicians and patients” – suggesting the patients were forcibly tapered or abandoned by their doctors.

In its warning to doctors, the FDA strongly recommends that patients not be forcibly tapered and that patients and doctors should jointly agree to a tapering plan.

“Health care professionals should not abruptly discontinue opioids in a patient who is physically dependent. When you and your patient have agreed to taper the dose of opioid analgesic, consider a variety of factors, including the dose of the drug, the duration of treatment, the type of pain being treated, and the physical and psychological attributes of the patient. No standard opioid tapering schedule exists that is suitable for all patients,” the FDA said.

Forced Tapering Widespread

How many patients have been forcibly tapered or discontinued is unclear, but it probably runs in the millions. A recent report from IQVIA found that there were 75 million fewer opioid prescriptions filled last year compared to 2014, with the biggest decline in high dose prescriptions. 

In PNN’s recent survey of nearly 6,000 pain patients, over 80 percent said they had been taken off opioids or had their dose reduced since the CDC released its controversial opioid guideline in 2016. Many were turning to other substances – both legal and illegal – for pain relief. And nearly half said they had considered suicide because their pain is poorly treated.

“I have been forced to taper to 90 MME. I had been stable and functional for 10 years at 135 MME. Now I can no longer work, and can barely take care of my children. I am considering suicide because my pain is unbearable,” one patient told us.

“I have been forcibly tapered by more than half and my pain is not being relieved at this dose. I am now unable to work or care for my children,” another patient wrote. “I live in constant anxiety (which worsens my pain) that I will be abandoned, refused any pain management, or reduced to a dose so low that taking my own life is the only way to escape the pain.”

“My forced taper was a little over a year ago. Before that I lived a small but functional life on high dose opioids. I took the same dose, from the same doctor for over a decade. Then I was forced off of 75% of my dose,” said another patient. “Once we got down to my current dose the medication was no longer enough to control my pain. I now live a tiny, nonfunctional life. I spend all my time in bed watching TV. I never leave the house. Showers are my worst enemy. And I am lucky. I wasn’t abandoned by my doctor.”

A noted critic of opioid prescribing calls reports like these exaggerations. Andrew Kolodny, MD, the Executive Director and founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), told Stateline that the number of doctors who are inappropriately tapering patients is likely very small and should not be blamed on the CDC.

"We have a very real problem in this country. But the CDC guidelines didn't cause it," Kolodny said. "The problem is that millions of Americans have been put on round-the-clock opioids at very high doses and for reasons that doctors now realize were not appropriate.

"What the FDA needs to tell doctors is that because it is so excruciating to come off of opioids, they need to be very selective about who they put on them.”

In a series of Tweets two years ago, Kolodny said patients on high doses should be forcibly tapered “even if patient refuses” and challenged assertions that forced tapering was risky and widespread.

Now Kolodny says he sympathizes with patients but claims they are being manipulated.

“Their emotions are real. But they’re being effectively manipulated to controversialize the CDC guidelines,” he told Stateline.

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Many of Kolodny’s colleagues disagree. Over 300 healthcare professionals warned in a joint letter last year that forced opioid tapering has led to “an alarming increase in reports of patient suffering and suicides” and called for an urgent review of tapering policies at every level of healthcare.

“This is a large-scale humanitarian issue,” the letter warns. “New and grave risks now exist because of forced opioid tapering.” 

Have We Reached the Stem Cell Tipping Point?

By A. Rahman Ford, PNN Columnist

One morning while watching TV, I was astonished by one of the commercials that ran.  It was an ad for stem cell therapy.  That was when it dawned on me – stem cells had finally hit the mainstream.  It was no longer a procedure of myth and mystery that people saw as strange or taboo.  It was now real, obtainable and, dare I say, normal. 

The public discourse over the legitimacy of stem cell therapy (SCT) has taken a clear turn in recent years, away from fearmongering and misrepresentation, and toward medical innovation and less restrictive federal regulation. 

Stem cell therapy may have officially reached its tipping point.

The term “tipping point” was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell.  He describes it as “that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once.”  For Gladwell, certain large-scale social phenomena – which he terms “epidemics” or “contagions” – take hold through small, incremental changes that tend to happen in a hurry.  

Gladwell asserts that, like medical epidemics, “tipping point” social epidemics obey three laws:

  1. Law of the Few: They are driven by a handful of people

  2. Stickiness Factor: At a certain point a message “sticks” in the memory

  3. Power of Context: Human beings are sensitive to their environment 

Three groups of people facilitate successful social epidemics:

  1. Mavens, who possess the specific information or knowledge

  2. Connectors, who bring people together and disseminate that information

  3. Salesmen, who persuade others to believe the information. 

It’s ironic that Gladwell uses examples of medical epidemics to describe a theory that could be applied to a modality with the curative power of SCT. The increasing and diverse number of patient testimonials online shows how SCT has reached its tipping point.

Roar Africa CEO Deborah Calmeyer used her own stem cells to repair a bone chip on a toe she injured falling down a flight of stairs at a Manhattan restaurant.  After two years, her pain was gone and the cartilage completely healed. 

Grandmother Andrea Coleman of Charlotte, NC used her own stem cells to heal her arthritis pain, pain which she described as “10+.”  Less than two months after the therapy, her pain was at a “2 or a 3.”  And how did she find the clinic?  Her husband did a simple online search.

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High school wrestlers like JD Peralta of small-town Clovis, California used SCT to heal a torn ACL and meniscus. 

South Florida mother Marty Kelly credits SCT with curing her non-verbal autistic son Kenneth.  At eight years old, Kenneth couldn’t talk or reread and was still in diapers. Now, after nine treatments, 17-year-old Kenneth is about to graduate high school.  How did Marty Kelley find out about SCT?  She “stumbled” across a little boy in Orlando who also benefitted from the therapy. 

Finally, Superman actor Dean Cain used SCT to heal chronic pain from a knee injury he suffered playing professional football.  He even invited DailyMailTV cameras to record the procedure.  Cain also credits SCT with controlling his father’s Parkinson’s Disease. 

When Superman becomes an SCT connector and salesman, you know you’ve reached the tipping point.

Small Clinics and Large Hospitals Tip the Scales

More and more clinics are offering SCT.  This proliferation is occurring despite the restrictive FDA regulatory regime that dictates stem cells should be “minimally manipulated” and only for approved treatments. Clearly, the medical professionals are not overly concerned with FDA policing and investigation. This is similar to marijuana which, while still illegal under federal law, is legally sold in dispensaries in dozens of states without fear of a crackdown.  

This perception that the FDA has adopted a permissive, laissez-faire stance is telling and evidences another SCT tipping point.

Not only is the number of small clinics increasing, but the availability of SCT in large, mainstream hospitals is further evidence of a tipping point.  As Liz Szabo points out in Kaiser Health News, major hospitals like the Swedish Medical Center – Seattle’s largest non-profit health provider – have begun offering SCT with infomercial-like advertisements.  The Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic and the University of Miami have also entered the field to provide options to patients who have exhausted mainstream remedies. 

“We have patients in our offices demanding these treatments,” said Dr. Shane Shapiro of the Mayo Clinic. “If they don’t get them from us, they will get them somewhere else.”

A serious argument can be made that the SCT tipping point has indeed been reached.  Gladwell’s theory fits the SCT movement well.  Although the SCT movement’s initial push was driven by the few, as Gladwell conceptualized, it is the stories of the many that drive it now. 

Context has also been important. The pain and suffering of countless Americans has provided the context that has forced more clinics and hospitals to provide SCT.  And progress has been quick. Just nine years ago I had to go all the way to China for my SCT.

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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 earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rahman lives with chronic inflammation in his digestive tract and is unable to eat solid food.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It 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.

Still No Relief in Sight for Canadian Pain Patients

By Marvin Ross, Guest Columnist

Last month the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the agency’s 2016 opioid guideline does not endorse rapid tapering or discontinuation of opioid therapy. The CDC was responding to mounting criticism that its controversial guideline was causing harm to patients, including uncontrolled pain, depression and suicide.

As a Canadian, I am envious and embarrassed, for it is not over for pain patients in Canada. Americans have had active advocates in the American Medical Association and hundreds of doctors signing a public letter of protest, which resulted in the CDC and Food and Drug Administration finally admitting that forcing people to go off opiates is not good practice.

Canadian docs have said little about this, so I decided to ask the main authors of Canada’s opioid guideline, which is pretty much a copy of the CDC’s. They had written in response to me last year in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that they had “concerns” about inappropriate tapering and would “monitor the emerging literature.” Only one replied to me this time, saying that they speak out whenever they can, but no one will listen to them.

One anonymous doctor going by the name of “doc2help” objected to a piece I did in Medium suggesting that Canadian doctors have lost their moral compass. He thinks I am ill informed and doing damage.

I also let the office of the Canadian Minister of Health know what the CDC and FDA have done, as Health Canada has the same regulatory powers for drug approvals as the FDA. The answer was that they are having internal discussions.

Meetings and discussions make the bureaucracy go round-and-round. The Minister of Health did recently announce the formation of a chronic pain task force, but it has a three year time frame for more meetings.

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It is so much easier to blame patients and opioid prescribing, as Canadian authorities continue to do, even when most drug overdoses are the result of illicit fentanyl, not prescription opioids.

In Hamilton, Ontario, a medium sized city southwest of Toronto, opioid deaths are going up, while prescriptions are going down. Much of the illicit drugs in that city are due to pharmacy diversion, according to an excellent article in the Hamilton Spectator that revealed vast amounts of prescription drugs are making it onto our streets.

So far, 15 pharmacists have been caught peddling opioids illegally and Health Canada has found that over 1,400 Ontario pharmacies have reported missing drugs that they cannot account for. 

Dr. Anne Holbrook, director of clinical pharmacology at McMaster University, suggested it is patients who are selling their prescriptions on the street, but provided no studies to back up that claim when she spoke to the Spectator reporter. I have asked her directly and via the media relations department at McMaster University, but did not get a reply.  

Blaming patients is easy when you do not want to confront the fact that most street drugs are coming into the country illegally or being diverted by pharmacies.

A Toronto Star investigation found one Ottawa pharmacy that was responsible for putting at least 5,000 fentanyl patches on the street. The investigation found that between 2013 and 2017, nearly 3.5 million doses of prescription drugs disappeared from Ontario pharmacies. Over 200 Ontario pharmacists were disciplined by their professional body for diverting “massive amounts of deadly opioids.”

Our governments are ignoring all of this and blaming the poor chronic pain patients. Those of us in Canada will have to wait while the bureaucrats hold meetings and write papers before anything will be done.

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Marvin Ross is a medical writer and publisher in Dundas, Ontario. He has been writing on chronic pain for the past year and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

House Panel Seeks Clinical Trials of Kratom

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

At a time when several states and cities have banned kratom, a powerful congressional committee is recommending that the herbal supplement be studied in clinical trials because of its “potential promising results” in treating chronic pain.

In a report to Congress, the House Appropriations Committee recommends that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conduct research on whether kratom can be used as an alternative to opioids in treating pain.

“The Committee requests that NIH expand research on all health impacts of kratom, including its constituent compounds, mitragynine, and 7-hydroxymitragynine. The Committee is aware of the potential promising results of kratom for acute and chronic pain patients who seek safer alternatives to sometimes dangerously addictive and potentially deadly prescription opioids.”

The committee also recommended that the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) spend $3 million on clinical trials of kratom and cannabidiol (CBD) as alternatives for treating pain, and that the trials be conducted in “geographic regions hardest hit by the opioids crisis.”

The panel said it was concerned that the continuing classification of cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance was stifling research “at a time when we need as much information as possible about these drugs.”

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“The Committee notes that little research has been done to date on natural products that are used by many to treat pain in place of opioids. These natural plants and substances include kratom and cannabidiol (CBD). Given the wide availability and increased use of these substances, it is imperative to know more about potential risks or benefits, and whether or not they can have a role in finding new and effective non-opioid methods to treat pain.”

The committee said the current state of pain management in the U.S. is “often inadequate for many patients” and that additional treatments were needed. It asked that Congress be given an update on the development of non-opioid chronic pain therapies in the next fiscal year.

To be clear, the 346-page report by the House committee is an ambitious “wish list” of hundreds of various projects that may or may not be included in a final congressional spending bill.  But the inclusion of funding for kratom research is significant, given the campaign against kratom by some public health offiicials.

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. In recent years millions of Americans have discovered kratom and use it as a daily treatment for pain, addiction, depression and anxiety.  

Although kratom is not an opioid, health officials have warned that it has “opioid-like” qualities, can be addictive and is not approved for any medical condition. Last month the CDC said kratom was listed as the cause of death in at least 91 overdoses and the FDA said it discovered dangerous levels of heavy metals in dozens of kratom products.

Kratom has been banned in 6 states and dozens of counties and cities have enacted or are considering their own bans. Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommended to the DEA that kratom be classified as a Schedule I substance – which would effectively ban it nationwide.

Ironically, HHS oversees both the NIH and AHRQ, the same agencies the House Appropriations Committee wants to fund for kratom research.   

When Will Forced Tapering of Opioids End?

By Lynn Webster, MD, PNN Columnist

“Larry” recently wrote to me asking for advice. He describes himself as "virtually crippled totally" after having his opioid medication cutback.

"I am being forced tapered and the PA I now have will not budge one inch on the weaning, as he calls it. I hate him. I have never had a more callous doctor in my life," Larry wrote.

"What does one do in my situation? Blow my brains out? A[n] intentional overdose? I have two beautiful dogs that depend on me and a son who needs me. I have to stay here on planet Earth although I want out of here so bad I beg God to kill me every morning noon and night. It is my daily prayer."

Unfortunately, Larry is only one of many patients who are struggling to be heard by their providers. Physicians are under government pressure to adhere to the CDC’s 2016 opioid prescribing guideline.

Although the CDC designed its guideline as voluntary, government agencies interpreted it as a mandate instead. The Drug Enforcement Administration has pursued doctors who prescribe a level of opioids that exceeds the guideline's recommended daily limit of 90 MME (morphine milligram equivalent), even when no patients have been harmed.

According to Maia Szalavitz, writing for Tonic, Dr. Forest Tennant was one of the few physicians who still were willing to prescribe high-dose opioids for the sickest pain patients. The DEA raided his California office and home, allegedly because the agency had reason to believe some of his patients were selling their medication.

There simply was no evidence of that. But as a result of the raid, Dr. Tennant retired from clinical practice.

Szalavitz wrote that the raid "terrifies pain patients and their physicians, who fear that it could lead to de facto prohibition of opioid prescribing for chronic pain and even hamper end-of-life care."

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Dr. Mark Ibsen in Montana had his license suspended by the state medical board for allegedly overprescribing opioids. According to Dr. Ibsen, the DEA warned him "he was risking his livelihood and could end up in jail if he kept prescribing." A judge later overturned the board’s decision.

As Dr. James Patrick Murphy, a Kentucky-based pain and addiction specialist, told the Courier-Journal, "many well-intended doctors are unfairly arrested 'all the time' in the hunt for those who recklessly contribute to patients' addictions and fatal overdoses."

As of this writing, The American University Law Journal plans to publish an alarming article by Michael Barnes, JD, about the raids on America’s top physicians.

Although few physicians are incarcerated for prescribing high dosages of opioids, many of them are threatened with losing their licenses to practice medicine. Doctors and pharmacists told a POLITICO survey that they felt enormous pressure to limit their prescriptions for painkillers. Their fear of the consequences of noncompliance with the CDC guideline exceeded their responsibility to treat patients with severe pain.

Second Thoughts About CDC Guideline

On April 1, the attorneys general of 39 states and territories wrote a letter on behalf of the National Association of Attorneys General to Dr. Vanila Singh of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The letter expressed concern with the draft report of the Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force, which recommends changes in the CDC guideline to end the forced tapering of patients.

The attorneys general said "it is incomprehensible that officials would consider moving away from key components of the CDC guideline." Additionally, they expressed their hope that the report would be revised "to clearly state that there is no completely safe opioid dose."

Yet on April 9, the Food and Drug Administration issued a medical alert warning doctors not to abruptly discontinue or rapidly taper patients on opioid medication, because it was causing “serious harm” to patients, including uncontrolled pain, psychological distress and suicides.

Now it seems the CDC may be moving in the same direction.

Dr. Daniel Alford, a Professor of Medicine at Boston University, wrote a letter to the CDC asking it to address the misapplication of its guideline with a "public clarification." He was writing on behalf of Health Professionals for Patients in Pain, and 300 healthcare professionals signed his letter.

The CDC's response, published on April 10, echoed the FDA's statement. CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield observed that the CDC guideline "offered no support for mandatory opioid dose reductions in patients with long-term pain." He reinforced the fact that the guideline was voluntary and that doctors should use their knowledge of their patients to determine which dosages were appropriate for them.

Dr. Redfield wrote that “CDC is working diligently to evaluate the impact of the Guideline and clarify its recommendations to help reduce unintended harms." And he agreed that "patients suffering from chronic pain deserve safe and effective pain management."

STAT News points out that the overzealous enforcement of the CDC guideline was indeed causing patients harm. "Denying opioids to patients who have relied on them — sometimes for years — may cause some to turn to street drugs, thereby increasing their risk of overdose," STAT warned.

According to The Washington Post, "Many patients have claimed that long-term use of the drugs is all that stands between them and unrelenting pain, and that they can take the medication without becoming dependent or addicted."

The CDC and the FDA now admit the guideline has been misapplied and mainstream media outlets are beginning to pick up the story. The question is: Will the DEA stop pursuing doctors who treat pain patients with levels of opioids that exceed the guideline's recommendations?

For Larry and other pain patients who have been forcibly tapered, the answer may be a matter of life and death.

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Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine and the author of “The Painful Truth.”

You can find Lynn on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Stem Cells Reduce Pain from Knee Osteoarthritis

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A small new study has demonstrated that stem cells collected from a patient’s own bone marrow can significantly reduce pain caused by osteoarthritis of the knee.

In the first clinical trial of its kind in Canada, researchers collected mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs) from the spines of 12 middle-aged patients with moderate to severe knee osteoarthritis. These “autologous” cells – stem cells derived from a patient’s own fat or bone tissue – were then processed and injected back into the patients’ knees at different doses.

Researchers then followed the patients for the next 12 months, using MRI imaging, biomarkers, molecular fingerprinting and the patient's own assessment of how they felt.

"Our goal was to test for safety as well as to gain a better understanding of MSC dosing, mechanisms of action and donor selection," said lead author Sowmya Viswanathan, PhD, Arthritis Program at the Krembil Research Institute, University Health Network in Toronto.

At the end of the study period, researchers said there were significant improvements in all 12 patients’ pain levels, stiffness and quality of life. The study also showed that the MSCs were safe at all the doses tested and that the higher the dose, the more effective the outcome.

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"We also obtained novel insights into a potential anti-inflammatory mechanism of action of these cells in osteoarthritic knee joints. We noted that donor heterogeneity is an important factor, and our assembled panel of genes helps us identify cells which are potent in osteoarthritis. These are important findings which we hope to translate into a larger, powered clinical trial as part of our next steps," said Viswanathan, who reported the findings in the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine.

Over 250 million people worldwide suffer from knee osteoarthritis (OA), which causes thinning of cartilage and progressive joint damage. Nearly 40 percent of Americans over the age of 45 have some degree of knee OA.

Knee replacement and arthroscopic knee surgeries are commonly used to treat knee OA, even though many studies show they have limited effectiveness. A 2017 study in The British Medical Journal  of over 7,400 patients who had knee replacement surgery found the procedure often had minimal effects on quality of life and wasn’t worth the cost.

Arthroscopic surgery is less invasive than a total knee replacement, but studies also show it is often not effective. In 2017, an international panel of experts reviewed 25 studies involving nearly two million patients and concluded that arthroscopic surgery does not improve long term pain or function in patients with knee conditions such as osteoarthritis.

Because these conventional treatments often fail, there is growing interest in the use of stem cells to treat knee problems. The FDA, however, takes a dim view of autologous stem cells and released guidance in 2017 that requires the cells to undergo “minimal manipulation.”

The FDA recently sent letters to 20 stem cell manufacturers and clinics warning them they were violating FDA regulations. The agency says the science behind autologous cells is still in its early stages and they have not been proven to be safe and effective.

“There’s a false premise being asserted by some in the field that a product derived from a person’s own body and then manipulated and reinserted for another use different from the one it played in its original location is not subject to FDA regulation just because it originated from the person it was given back to,” then FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, and Biologics Center Director Peter Marks, MD, said in a statement.

“We’ve seen too many cases of sponsors claiming that cells aren’t subject to FDA regulation just because the cells originated from the same patient to whom the eventual manufactured product is being given. And we’ve seen too many cases of companies making unsubstantiated claims that these treatments prevent, treat, cure or mitigate disease where the products have sometimes led to serious patient harm.”

FDA Warns About Fast Opioid Tapers

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an unusual warning Tuesday cautioning doctors not to abruptly discontinue or rapidly taper patients on opioid pain medication.

The agency said in a statement it had received reports of “serious harm in patients who are physically dependent on opioid pain medicines suddenly having these medicines discontinued or the dose rapidly decreased.” The harm includes withdrawal symptoms, uncontrolled pain, psychological distress and suicide.

The FDA gave no details on cases of patient harm but said it was tracking them and would require changes on opioid warning labels to help instruct physicians on how to safely decrease opioid doses.

“Rapid discontinuation can result in uncontrolled pain or withdrawal symptoms. In turn, these symptoms can lead patients to seek other sources of opioid pain medicines, which may be confused with drug-seeking for abuse. Patients may attempt to treat their pain or withdrawal symptoms with illicit opioids, such as heroin, and other substances,” the FDA said.

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In recent years, there have been an increasing number of anecdotal reports of pain patients committing suicide or turning to illegal drugs for pain relief. It is not clear why the FDA decided to act now, just days after the departure of former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD.

In PNN’s recent survey of nearly 6,000 patients, over 80 percent said they had been taken off opioids or had their dose reduced. Nearly half said they had considered suicide because their pain is poorly treated and many were turning to other substances – both legal and illegal – for pain relief.

  • 11% obtained opioid medication from family, friends or black market

  • 26% used medical marijuana for pain relief

  • 20% used alcohol for pain relief

  • 20% used kratom for pain relief

  • 4% used illegal drugs (heroin, illicit fentanyl, etc.) for pain relief    

Last December, over a hundred healthcare professionals warned in a joint letter to the Department of Health and Human Services that forced opioid tapering has led to “an alarming increase in reports of patient suffering and suicides” and called for an urgent review of tapering policies at every level of healthcare.

“This is a large-scale humanitarian issue,” the letter warns. “New and grave risks now exist because of forced opioid tapering.” 

Federal agencies widely differ on opioid tapering recommendations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend a "go slow" approach, with a "reasonable starting point" being 10% of the original dose per week. Patients who have been on opioids for a long time should have even slower tapers of 10% a month, according to the CDC.

The Department of Veterans Affairs recommends a taper of 5% to 20% every four weeks, although in some cases the VA suggests an initial rapid taper of 20% to 50% a day “if needed.”

In its warning, the FDA cautioned doctors that no standard opioid tapering schedule exists that is suitable for all patients.

When you and your patient have agreed to taper the dose of opioid analgesic, consider a variety of factors, including the dose of the drug, the duration of treatment, the type of pain being treated, and the physical and psychological attributes of the patient,” the FDA said. “Create a patient-specific plan to gradually taper the dose of the opioid and ensure ongoing monitoring and support, as needed, to avoid serious withdrawal symptoms, worsening of the patient’s pain, or psychological distress.”

The FDA urged patients and doctors to report side effects from opioid discontinuation and rapid tapers at druginfo@fda.hhs.gov or to call 855-543-DRUG (3784) and press 4.

FDA Finds Unsafe Levels of Heavy Metals in Kratom

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The American Kratom Association’s new certified vendor program has gotten off to an inauspicious start. Kraken Kratom, the first vendor to qualify under the AKA’s Good Manufacturing Standards (GMP) program, has been flagged by the Food and Drug Administration for having dangerous levels of heavy metals in some of its products.

The FDA this week released the final test results on 30 kratom products found to contain levels of lead and nickel considered unsafe for daily human consumption. Five of the 30 samples that tested positive came from Kraken Kratom or one of its affiliated vendors.

“The analysis found significant levels of lead and nickel at concentrations that exceed safe exposure for oral daily drug intake,” the FDA said in a statement. “Based on these test results, the typical long-term kratom user could potentially develop heavy metal poisoning, which could include nervous system or kidney damage, anemia, high blood pressure, and/or increased risk of certain cancers.”

Ironically, last month Kraken Kraken became the first company to receive the AKA’s seal of approval as a certified GMP vendor. To qualify, participants must undergo a third-party audit and inspection of their manufacturing and packaging facilities.   

The company said in a statement posted online that it was never contacted by the FDA about the heavy metal findings or told to take its kratom products off the market.

“Kraken has no information regarding the samples the FDA used in their tests, including when or how the FDA acquired our products or when they tested the samples they obtained,” the statement said.

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This isn’t the first time Kraken Kratom has come under FDA scrutiny. Its parent company, PDX Aromatics of Portland, Oregon, recalled thousands of kratom packages last year after samples tested positive for Salmonella bacteria. The company believes the samples that tested positive for heavy metals may have come from an FDA inspection in March, 2018.

“If these samples are from that investigation, their product lots were pulled from the market over 12 months ago as part of the extensive recall we did in cooperation with the FDA. Further, it would indicate that the FDA was rehashing old information, not in an attempt to protect the public, but as a way to target and further stigmatize kratom,” the company said.

In recent years, millions of Americans have discovered kratom, an herb grown and used in southeast Asia for centuries as a natural stimulant and pain reliever. Kratom is widely available online and in smoke shops, but the quality of what’s being sold and what country it came from are often unknown. Like other dietary supplements, kratom products are essentially unregulated and there are little or no quality controls.

That’s one of the reasons the AKA launched its GMP certification program. The organization said it wanted to protect kratom consumers from “unscrupulous vendors using sloppy manufacturing procedures” and those who adulterate kratom to boost its potency by adding substances like fentanyl or morphine.

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But under the AKA’s certification program, no kratom products are actually tested for Salmonella bacteria, heavy metals, fentanyl or any other foreign substances.

“No, absolutely not. That is not our function,” AKA President Dave Herman told PNN. “The audit does not inspect the products. The audit inspects the procedures in place to manage the facility.”

Herman says third party auditors hired by the vendor and approved by the AKA only inspect manufacturing procedures — not the kratom itself. He declined to comment on the FDA’s discovery of heavy metals in Kraken Kratom products.

“I have no way of knowing when samples were taken or under what conditions they were taken,” he said. “Was it prior to an inspection? After an inspection? And without that knowledge I’m not sure I can say anything intelligent,” Herman said.

A handful of states have banned kratom and there is speculation the Drug Enforcement Administration will try again to schedule it as a controlled substance, something the agency backed away from in 2016 after a public outcry. FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD – who leaves office today -- has also mounted an extended public relations campaign against kratom.

"Over the last year, the FDA has issued numerous warnings about the serious risks associated with the use of kratom, including novel risks due to the variability in how kratom products are formulated, sold and used both recreationally and by those who are seeking to self-medicate for pain or to treat opioid withdrawal symptoms,” Gottlieb said in a statement.

“Data suggest that certain substances in kratom have opioid properties and that one or more have the potential for abuse. The findings of identifying heavy metals in kratom only strengthen our public health warnings around this substance and concern for the health and safety of Americans using it."

Feds Warn CBD Marketers About False Medical Claims

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission are tapping the brakes on the fast growing market for cannabidiol (CBD), warning companies not to make false claims that CBD products can be used to treat fibromyalgia, migraine, arthritis and other chronic illnesses.

The agencies sent 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 oils, extracts and edibles.

The FDA and FTC sent the warning letters on March 28 and gave the companies 15 days to respond.

Nutra Pure’s website, according to regulators, claimed that “CBD has demonstrated the ability to block spinal, peripheral and gastrointestinal mechanisms responsible for the pain associated with migraines, fibromyalgia, IBS and other related disorders.”

Claims were also made that CBD is “an effective and safe treatment alternative” for inflammatory conditions such as lupus, Celiac disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

Nutra Pure, which makes a line of hemp oil, has a small disclaimer on its website stating that “these products are not intended to diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure any disease.”

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PotNetwork has a similar disclaimer on its website, where it sells everything from CBD infused gummy bears and energy drinks to moisturizers and pet care products. According to the FDA, the company falsely claimed that CBD “blocked the progression of arthritis” and “has also shown the ability to kill cancer cells directly.”  

In addition to marketing CBD products, Advanced Spine and Pain also offers stem cell therapy, steroid injections, trigger point injections and ketamine infusions at its “Relievus” clinics in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

‘Open Questions’ About CBD Safety

The federal crackdown on CBD marketing comes at a time when CBD products are starting to appear in mainstream stores. CVS Pharmacy and Walgreens started selling cannabis-based lotions, tinctures, edibles and lozenges in stores last month. The CBD products are being sold over-the-counter and without a prescription.  

The FDA and FTC announced no actions against CVS, Walgreens or other retailers selling CBD products, but they sent a clear message that the marketing of CBD will be closely watched.

“We treat products containing cannabis or cannabis-derived compounds as we do any other FDA-regulated products. Among other things, the FDA requires a cannabis product (hemp-derived or otherwise) that’s marketed with a claim of therapeutic benefit to be approved by the FDA for its intended use before it may be introduced into interstate commerce,” FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, said in a statement. “Additionally, it is unlawful to introduce food containing added CBD, or the psychoactive compound THC, into interstate commerce, or to market CBD or THC products as dietary supplements.”

The 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp – a less potent strain of marijuana – from the Controlled Substances Act. That made hemp products legal to sell, but left the FDA in charge of regulating dietary supplements containing CBD. The agency is still trying to figure out how to regulate a product for which there is growing consumer demand, but little scientific evidence to support its use.

“While the availability of CBD products in particular has increased dramatically in recent years, open questions remain regarding the safety considerations raised by their widespread use,” Gottlieb said. “There are also unresolved questions regarding the cumulative exposure to CBD if people access it across a broad range of consumer products, as well as questions regarding the intended functionality of CBD in such products.”

Gottlieb has announced plans to hold a public hearing on May 31 to review the safety and effectiveness of CBD products. The FDA is also forming an internal working group within the agency to explore what regulatory changes would be needed for CBD products to be marketed legally.  

Elite Hospitals Offering Unproven Stem Cell Treatments

By Liz Szabo, Kaiser Health News

The online video seems to promise everything an arthritis patient could want.

The six-minute segment mimics a morning talk show, using a polished TV host to interview guests around a coffee table. Dr. Adam Pourcho extols the benefits of stem cells and “regenerative medicine” for healing joints without surgery. Pourcho, a sports medicine specialist, says he has used platelet injections to treat his own knee pain, as well as a tendon injury in his elbow. Extending his arm, he says, “It’s completely healed.”

Brendan Hyland, a gym teacher and track coach, describes withstanding intense heel pain for 18 months before seeing Pourcho. Four months after the injections, he says, he was pain-free and has since gone on a 40-mile hike.

“I don’t have any pain that stops me from doing anything I want,” Hyland says.

The video’s cheerleading tone mimics the infomercials used to promote stem cell clinics, several of which have recently gotten into hot water with federal regulators, said Dr. Paul Knoepfler, a professor of cell biology and human anatomy at the University of California-Davis School of Medicine.

But the marketing video wasn’t filmed by a little-known operator. It was sponsored by Swedish Medical Center, the largest nonprofit health provider in the Seattle area.

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Swedish is one of a growing number of respected hospitals and health systems—including the Mayo Clinic, the Cleveland Clinic and the University of Miami—that have entered the lucrative business of stem cells and related therapies. Typical treatments involve injecting patients’ joints with their own fat or bone marrow cells, or with extracts of platelets, the cell fragments known for their role in clotting blood. Many patients seek out regenerative medicine to stave off surgery, even though the evidence supporting these experimental therapies is thin at best, Knoepfler said.

Hospitals say they’re providing options to patients who have exhausted standard treatments. But critics suggest the hospitals are exploiting desperate patients and profiting from trendy but unproven treatments.

The Food and Drug Administration is attempting to shut down clinics that hawk unapproved stem cell therapies, which have been linked to several cases of blindness and at least 12 serious infections. Although doctors usually need preapproval to treat patients with human cells, the FDA has carved out a handful of exceptions, as long as the cells meet certain criteria, said Barbara Binzak Blumenfeld, an attorney who specializes in food and drug law at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney in Washington.

Hospitals like Mayo are careful to follow these criteria, to avoid running afoul of the FDA, said Dr. Shane Shapiro, program director for the Regenerative Medicine Therapeutics Suites at Mayo Clinic's campus in Florida.

‘Expensive Placebos’

While hospital-based stem cell treatments may be legal, there’s no strong evidence they work, said Leigh Turner, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics who has published a series of articles describing the size and dynamics of the stem cell market.

“FDA approval isn’t needed and physicians can claim they aren’t violating federal regulations,” Turner said. “But just because something is legal doesn’t make it ethical.”

For doctors and hospitals, stem cells are easy money, Turner said. Patients typically pay more than $700 a treatment for platelets and up to $5,000 for fat and bone marrow injections. As a bonus, doctors don’t have to wrangle with insurance companies, which view the procedures as experimental and largely don’t cover them.

It’s lucrative. It’s easy to do. All these reputable institutions, they don’t want to miss out on the business. It preys on people’s desperation.
— Dr. James Rickert

“It’s an out-of-pocket, cash-on-the-barrel economy,” Turner said. Across the country, “clinicians at elite medical facilities are lining their pockets by providing expensive placebos.”

Some patient advocates worry that hospitals are more interested in capturing a slice of the stem-cell market than in proving their treatments actually work.

“It’s lucrative. It’s easy to do. All these reputable institutions, they don’t want to miss out on the business,” said Dr. James Rickert, president of the Society for Patient Centered Orthopedics, which advocates for high-quality care. “It preys on people’s desperation.”

In a joint statement, Pourcho and Swedish defended the online video.

“The terminology was kept simple and with analogies that the lay person would understand,” according to the statement. “As with any treatment that we provide, we encourage patients to research and consider all potential treatment options before deciding on what is best for them.”

But Knoepfler said the guests on the video make several “unbelievable” claims.

At one point, Dr. Pourcho says that platelets release growth factors that tell the brain which types of stem cells to send to the site of an injury. According to Pourcho, these instructions make sure that tissues are repaired with the appropriate type of cell, and “so you don’t get, say, eyeball in your hand.”

Knoepfler, who has studied stem cell biology for two decades, said he has never heard of “any possibility of growing eyeball or other random tissues in your hand.” Knoepfler, who wrote about the video in February on his blog, The Niche, said, “There’s no way that the adult brain could send that kind of stem cells anywhere in the body.”

The marketing video debuted in July on KING-TV, a Seattle station, as part of a local lifestyles show called “New Day Northwest.”

Although much of the show is produced by the KING 5 news team, some segments—like Pourcho’s interview—are sponsored by local advertisers, said Jim Rose, president and general manager of KING 5 Media Group.

After being contacted by KHN, Rose asked Swedish to remove the video from YouTube because it wasn’t labeled as sponsored content. Omitting that label could allow the video to be confused with news programming. The video now appears only on the KING-TV website, where Swedish is labeled as the sponsor.

“The goal is to clearly inform viewers of paid content so they can distinguish editorial and news content from paid material,” Rose said. “We value the public’s trust.”

Increasing Scrutiny

Federal authorities have recently begun cracking down on doctors who make unproven claims or sell unapproved stem cell products.

In October, the Federal Trade Commission fined stem cell clinics millions of dollars for deceptive advertising, noting that the companies claimed to be able to treat or cure autism, Parkinson’s disease and other serious diseases.

In a recent interview Scott Gottlieb, the FDA commissioner, said the agency will continue to go after what he called “bad actors.”

With more than 700 stem cell clinics in operation, the FDA is first targeting those posing the biggest threat, such as doctors who inject stem cells directly into the eye or brain.

“There are clearly bad actors who are well over the line and who are creating significant risks for patients,” Gottlieb said.

Products are being promoted that aren’t providing any proven benefits and where patients are paying out-of-pocket.
— Scott Gottlieb, FDA Commissioner

Gottlieb, set to leave office April 5, said he’s also concerned about the financial exploitation of patients in pain.

“There’s economic harm here, where products are being promoted that aren’t providing any proven benefits and where patients are paying out-of-pocket,” Gottlieb said.

Dr. Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said there is a broad “spectrum” of stem cell providers, ranging from university scientists leading rigorous clinical trials to doctors who promise stem cells are “for just about anything.” Hospitals operate somewhere in the middle, Marks said.

“The good news is that they’re somewhat closer to the most rigorous academics,” he said.

The Mayo Clinic’s regenerative medicine program, for example, focuses conditions such as arthritis, where injections pose few serious risks, even if that’s not yet the standard of care, Shapiro said.

Rickert said it’s easy to see why hospitals are eager to get in the game.

The market for arthritis treatment is huge and growing. At least 30 million Americans have the most common form of arthritis, with diagnoses expected to soar as the population ages. Platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections for arthritis generated more than $93 million in revenue in 2015, according to an article last year in The Journal of Knee Surgery.

“We have patients in our offices demanding these treatments,” Shapiro said. “If they don’t get them from us, they will get them somewhere else.”

Doctors at the Mayo Clinic try to provide stem cell treatments and similar therapies responsibly, Shapiro said. In a paper published this year, Shapiro described the hospital’s consultation service, in which doctors explain patients’ options and clear up misconceptions about what stem cells and other injections can do. Doctors can refer patients to treatment or clinical trials.

“Most of the patients do not get a regenerative [stem cell] procedure,” Shapiro said. “They don’t get it because after we have a frank conversation, they decide, ‘Maybe it’s not for me.’”

Lots of Hype, Little Proof

Although some hospitals boast of high success rates for their stem cell procedures, published research doesn’t back up those claims, Rickert said.

The Mayo Clinic website says that 40 to 70 percent of patients “find some level of pain relief.” Atlanta-based Emory Healthcare claims that 75 to 80 percent of patients “have had significant pain relief and improved function.” In the Swedish video, Pourcho claims “we can treat really any tendon or any joint” with PRP.

The strongest evidence for PRP is in pain relief for arthritic knees and tennis elbow, where it appears to be safe and perhaps helpful, said Dr. Nicolas Piuzzi, an orthopedic surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic.

But PRP hasn’t been proven to help every part of the body, he said.

PRP has been linked to serious complications when injected to treat patellar tendinitis, an injury to the tendon connecting the kneecap to the shinbone. In a 2013 paper, researchers described the cases of three patients whose pain got dramatically worse after PRP injections. One patient lost bone and underwent surgery to repair the damage.

“People will say, ‘If you inject PRP, you will return to sports faster,’” said Dr. Freddie Fu, chairman of orthopedic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “But that hasn’t been proven.”

A 2017 study of PRP found it relieved knee pain slightly better than injections of hyaluronic acid. But that’s nothing to brag about, Rickert said, given that hyaluronic acid therapy doesn’t work, either. While some PRP studies have shown more positive results, Rickert notes that most were so small or poorly designed that their results aren’t reliable.

In its 2013 guidelines for knee arthritis, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons said it is “unable to recommend for or against” PRP.

“PRP is sort of a ‘buyer beware’ situation,” said Dr. William Li, president and CEO of the Angiogenesis Foundation, whose research focuses on blood vessel formation. “It’s the poor man’s approach to biotechnology.”

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Tests of other stem cell injections also have failed to live up to expectations.

Shapiro published a rigorously designed study last year in Cartilage, a medical journal, that found bone marrow injections were no better at relieving knee pain than saltwater injections. Rickert noted that patients who are in pain often get relief from placebos. The more invasive the procedure, the stronger the placebo effect, he said, perhaps because patients become invested in the idea that an intervention will really help. Even saltwater injections help 70 percent of patients, Fu said.

A 2016 review in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery concluded that “the value and effective use of cell therapy in orthopaedics remain unclear.” The following year, a review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded, “We do not recommend stem cell therapy” for knee arthritis.

Shapiro said hospitals and health plans are right to be cautious.

“The insurance companies don’t pay for fat grafting or bone-marrow aspiration, and rightly so,” Shapiro said. “That’s because we don’t have enough evidence.”

Rickert, an orthopedist in Bedford, Indiana, said fat, bone marrow and platelet injections should be offered only through clinical trials, which carefully evaluate experimental treatments. Patients shouldn’t be charged for these services until they’ve been tested and shown to work.

Orthopedists—surgeons who specialize in bones and muscles—have a history of performing unproven procedures, including spinal fusion, surgery for rotator cuff disease and arthroscopy for worn-out knees, Turner said. Recently, studies have shown them to be no more effective than placebos.

Misleading Marketing

Some argue that joint injections shouldn’t be marketed as stem cell treatments at all.

Piuzzi said he prefers to call the injections “orthobiologics,”noting that platelets are not even cells, let alone stem cells. The number of stem cells in fat and bone marrow injections is extremely small, he said.

Patients are attracted to regenerative medicine because they assume it will regrow their lost cartilage, Piuzzi said. There’s no solid evidence that the commercial injections used today spur tissue growth, Piuzzi said. Although doctors hope that platelets will release anti-inflammatory substances, which could theoretically help calm an inflamed joint, they don’t know why some patients who receive platelet injections feel better, but others don’t.

So, it comes as no surprise that many patients have trouble sorting through the hype.

Florida resident Kathy Walsh, 61, said she wasted nearly $10,000 on stem cell and platelet injections at a Miami clinic, hoping to avoid knee replacement surgery.

When Walsh heard about a doctor in Miami claiming to regenerate knee cartilage with stem cells, “it seemed like an answer to a prayer,” said Walsh, of Stuart, Florida. “You’re so much in pain and so frustrated that you cling to every bit of hope you can get, even if it does cost you a lot of money.”

The injections eased her pain for only a few months. Eventually, she had both knees replaced. She has been nearly pain-free ever since. “My only regret,” she said, “is that I wasted so much time and money.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

FDA Takes a Bite Out of Nyloxin

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

It’s fair to say that cobra venom isn’t high on the list of go-to analgesics for most chronic pain sufferers. But that hasn’t stopped Nutra Pharma from cashing in on the appeal of an exotic, non-opioid pain reliever.

The Florida company’s main product – Nyloxin – is a homeopathic-based medicine that contains a tiny amount of cobra venom, which supposedly contains compounds that block pain signals from reaching the brain. Like other homeopathic products, Nutra Pharma’s CEO says only a small amount of the active ingredient is needed to make Nyloxin sprays and gels effective.

“Our regular strength product is 70 micrograms per milliliter of cobra venom,” CEO Rik Deitsch told PNN. “Our product is based on over a hundred years of research utilizing cobra venom at these dilution levels.”

But a complaint filed last fall by the Securities and Exchange Commission raises doubts about Nutra Pharma claims that it had 1,300 cobra snakes on a Florida farm that it “milks” monthly for venom.

“Nutra Pharma never had a cobra farm, never had cobras, and indeed had never produced cobra venom,” the SEC said.

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The only ones getting milked may be Nutra Pharma’s investors. The SEC complaint alleges Deitsch used manipulative insider stock trades and “a series of materially false or misleading press releases” to defraud investors out of nearly $1 million.

This week the U.S. Food and Drug Administration got into the act by sending a warning letter to Deitsch for illegally marketing unapproved products with false claims about their ability to treat chronic health conditions.  

“Today, we posted a warning letter to a company preying on patients who may be seeking alternative treatments for chronic pain, cancers, arthritis and autoimmune and neurological disorders. Health fraud scams like these are inexcusable,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, said in a statement.

They may be inexcusable, but they’ve been going on for years with little government oversight. Nutra Pharma’s multi-level marketing touts Nyloxin as “clinically proven to treat moderate to severe chronic pain.” and its website has dozens of glowing reviews from customers.  In a video on its YouTube channel, one customer even claims Nyloxin helped him become the first rheumatoid arthritis sufferer to climb Mt. Everest.   

The FDA commissioner says its time for deceptive marketing claims to end.

“One of our most important obligations is to protect consumers from those who would prey on them with bogus claims and fraudulent products. We’ve dedicated new resources to our enforcement work and I consider these activities the cornerstone of our consumer protection mission,” said Gottlieb. “We’re especially focused on those who would exploit Americans harmed by the opioid crisis with the false promise of products that can treat pain or addiction, but that offer no such benefit.”

It’s good that Gottlieb wants to protect consumers, but he fails to recognize that many Americans are turning to products like Nyloxin because they’re losing access to opioid therapy.  Denied the pain medication that most have safely used for years, patients are experimenting with alternative treatments, including some that are dubious or even fraudulent, such as compounded pain creams and cannabis skin patches.

PNN’s recent survey of over 5,800 patients found that 20 percent had tried medical marijuana or kratom for pain relief. Even more (26%) had used alcohol and a small number (4%) had turned to illegal drugs such as heroin. One in ten said they were getting prescription opioids from family and friends or buying them on the black market — which is being flooded with “Mexican Oxy” and other counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl.

Is it any wonder that people are buying Nyloxin? Or that Nutra Pharma is touting it as a “non-narcotic” and “safe” homeopathic solution to the opioid crisis? In a sense, policymakers have done all the marketing for them.

“I can tell you we have hundreds, if not thousands of people that have reduced or gotten off their opiates with Nyloxin,” said Deitsch, who intends to comply with the FDA request and continue selling Nyloxin. “We are answering the FDA warning letter. We are making the changes to the website and the claims they have asked us to make. But it is a great product and we stand by it.”

60 Minutes Fails to Consider Pain Patients

By Laura Mills, Kate M. Nicholson, and Lindsay Baran

In a Feb. 24 segment, CBS’s 60 Minutes accused the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of igniting the overdose epidemic in the United States with its “illegal approval of opioids for the treatment of chronic pain.” While the program highlighted the adverse consequences of misleading pharmaceutical marketing and lax government oversight, this segment failed to consider the perspective of patients who legitimately use opioids for pain, stigmatized them as drug-seekers, and propagated misconceptions about the overdose crisis, such as the idea that opioid treatment for chronic pain is indisputably illegitimate and is driving overdose deaths in the U.S.

When OxyContin went to market in 1996, its FDA label said that addiction was “very rare” when the medication was used to manage chronic pain. Although that warning was enhanced in 2001, the market for OxyContin was already booming: advertising spending for the drug increased from $700,000 in 1996 to $4.6 million in 2001. Lawsuits allege that Purdue Pharma, the maker of the drug, targeted high-prescribing physicians and continued to aggressively market OxyContin even after it learned its product had become a go-to drug for illicit use. The lack of government oversight and Purdue’s practices certainly deserve media scrutiny that could help shed light on actions that may underlie the overdose crisis.

However, the guests featured in the 60 Minutes segment gave the impression that the use of opioids for chronic pain is illegitimate or illegal, that prescription opioids are still driving overdose deaths in the United States, and that the use of prescribed opioids to manage chronic pain is equivalent to “heroin addiction.”

These are false narratives that do real harm to pain patients, who have been regularly stigmatized in the media and elsewhere as drug-seekers. In presenting this report, 60 Minutes failed to tell the other side of the story: that of pain patients who rely on these medications to function, and that of the medical community which largely agrees that opioids may help patients whose pain isn’t resolved by other means.

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Chronic pain is a large category that includes pain associated with incurable illnesses, severe neurological conditions, and catastrophic trauma as well as more common ailments like arthritis. There is growing agreement that using opioids across this broad category was inappropriate and did harm, and that it is important to balance the potential benefits of opioids with misuse and diversion risks. But the medical community still largely agrees that, for some patients, opioids provide benefits. Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control, the Federation of State Medical Boards, a 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine, and all applicable medical and government guidelines on prescribing opioids have reaffirmed that opioids may be appropriate for patients whose chronic pain isn’t resolved by other means. 

Re-evaluating the use of opioids in long-term pain makes sense given recent history, but rushing to judgment before we do so can do real harm and risks violating a fundamental component of the right to health, including the right to adequate treatment for pain.  In over 80 interviews with patients, physicians, and experts, a recent Human Rights Watch report found a disconcerting trend: chronic pain patients are being forced off opioid medications simply because doctors fear regulatory oversight and reprisal. In many cases, physicians acted against their better medical judgment. Even when they believed their patients’ health was improved by long-term opioid treatment, they felt they had no option but to reduce patients’ doses dramatically or cut them off completely. They felt a wide range of pressures, from fear of Drug Enforcement Agency or state medical board scrutiny to the heavy bureaucratic burden created by insurance companies through their efforts to discourage opioid prescribing.

When deprived of their medication, the consequences for patients can be devastating: their health declines to the point where they can no longer work, do simple chores, or take care of their personal hygiene.  Several patients said they had turned to alcohol or illicit drugs to manage their pain when they were deprived of care.

Take Maria Higginbotham, whose story is included in the report. She has undergone 12 operations to prevent the collapse of her spine. Unfortunately these operations, which failed to relieve her pain, also left her with adhesive arachnoiditis, an incredibly painful condition that causes the nerves of the spinal cord to “stick together.”

Re-evaluating the use of opioids in long-term pain makes sense given recent history, but rushing to judgment before we do so can do real harm and risks violating a fundamental component of the right to health.
— Human Rights Watch

Maria is now being forced to a lower dose of medication by a provider who believes she needs opioids, but is afraid of attracting law enforcement scrutiny of his practice. Previously, Maria could function independently; she now requires assistance to go to the toilet.  To suggest that Maria has no legitimate right to these medications—and that her need for them is misguided, inappropriate or the result of drug misuse — is stigmatizing to all patients like her.

Hundreds of leading physicians and experts from with varying views on the efficacy of opioids have called attention to the dangers of involuntarily discontinuing opioids for the estimated 18 million Americans who currently use them for long-term pain, a practice the CDC and other medical bodies do not encourage. These dangers include medical destabilization, the lost ability to work and function, and suicide. The National Council on Independent Living (NCIL), a national disability rights organization, shares these concerns, which have a disproportionate impact on people with disabilities living with chronic pain who already face major barriers to accessing healthcare.  The American Medical Association has similarly criticized the indiscriminate discontinuation of opioids, and has underscored that the stigma surrounding opioids now affects cancer and palliative care patients who, despite explicit exemptions, face increased barriers to access as well

While liberal prescribing undoubtedly caused harm, further perpetuating inflammatory and stigmatizing ideas about people who rely on opioids helps legitimize the growing reluctance of physicians to prescribe these medications to those who they believe need them. At a time when the prescribing of opioids has dropped precipitously and drug overdose deaths are largely attributed to illicit substances, such harm ought to figure into the conversation.

It’s true that there is a lack of high quality data studying the efficacy of opioids beyond 12 weeks, but it is also the case that most medications approved for the treatment of pain reflect studies of similar duration.  This is in part because doing long-term, placebo-controlled trials with real human beings who are suffering presents practical and ethical challenges. 

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb recently responded to the concerns raised by 60 Minutes, by announcing that the agency will conduct new studies into the efficacy of opioid analgesics for chronic pain, a move that he signaled could have an impact on how these drugs are marketed in the future. We agree that more research is critical and have backed initiatives such as the National Pain Strategy that call for much needed additional research into chronic pain. In the meantime, the dangers of reinforcing an incomplete or incorrect narrative and of stigmatizing patients are real—60 Minutes should ensure it doesn’t do either in its coverage, and should show all sides of the story.

This article was originally published on the Human Rights Watch website and is republished with permission.   

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Laura Mills is a health researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the HRW report, “Chronic Pain, the Overdose Crisis, and Unintended Harms in the U.S.”

Kate M. Nicholson is a civil rights and health policy attorney. She served for 20 years in the Department of Justice’s civil rights division, where she drafted current regulations under the Americans With Disabilities Act. She gave a TEDx talk about chronic pain, “What We Lose When We Undertreat Pain.

Lindsay Baran is the policy analyst at the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL), the longest-running national cross-disability grassroots organization run by and for people with disabilities.

FDA Commissioner Resigns Unexpectedly

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration resigned unexpectedly Tuesday, just days after a critical report on 60 Minutes that alleged the FDA “opened the floodgates” to the opioid crisis.  

“I’m immensely grateful for the opportunity to help lead this wonderful agency,” FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, tweeted. ”This has been a wonderful journey and parting is very hard.”

In a lengthier statement to FDA staff, Gottlieb cited family reasons for his departure.

“There’s perhaps nothing that could pull me away from this role other than the challenge of being apart from my family for these past two years and missing my wife and three young children,” Gottlieb said, indicating he would remain on the job until next month.

Gottlieb is a 46-year old cancer survivor and a former consultant to several drug companies. He commutes to Washington DC from his home in Westbury, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife and three daughters.   

President Trump tweeted that Gottlieb “has done an absolutely terrific job” and “he and his talents would be greatly missed!”

SCOTT GOTTLIEB, MD

SCOTT GOTTLIEB, MD

There was no indication that Gottlieb was in trouble or that he was forced out. The FDA is currently involved in a number of complex and controversial regulatory issues, from high drug prices and e-cigarettes to medical marijuana and the opioid crisis.

The timing of Gottlieb’s departure is puzzling, however, because he tweeted two months ago that he had no intention of resigning after hearing from friends about speculation in the news media that he was leaving.

“I want to be very clear — I’m not leaving. We’ve got a lot of important policy we’ll advance this year,” Gottlieb tweeted, adding a famous quote from Mark Twain that reports of his death “have been greatly exaggerated.”

The 60 Minutes report alleged that the FDA caved into lobbying pressure from the pharmaceutical industry in 2001 by changing the warning labels on OxyContin and other opioid medications to indicate they were effective for long term use.

Gottlieb was not working at FDA when the agency made its labeling decision, but pledged last week in a lengthy essay that the FDA would “learn from past mistakes” and take “a much more aggressive approach to regulatory action” involving opioids.

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Gottlieb joins a long list of agency directors and cabinet members who have resigned from the Trump administration, including former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who was forced out over excessive travel expenses and other ethical lapses, and former CDC director Brenda Fitzgerald, who resigned after it was disclosed she invested in tobacco and drug companies.

Future Pain Pills

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

The Food and Drug Administration announced this week that it would require drug makers to conduct new studies on the effectiveness of opioid pain medication and whether long-term use of the drugs lead to addiction. The FDA’s unprecedented action was due in no small part to a 60 Minutes report that said the agency “opened the floodgates” to the opioid crisis by approving the use of opioids for chronic pain. 

With opioid medication coming under scrutiny again – and perhaps more regulatory action – this is a good time to assess where we stand with development of newer and safer painkillers.  

Many analgesics already on the market have too many risks or too few benefits. A recent meta-analysis in JAMA concluded that opioids “may provide benefit for chronic noncancer pain, but the magnitude is likely to be small.”

And a new Cochrane review on acetaminophen (Tylenol) for hip or knee osteoarthritis found “only minimal improvements in pain and function.”

So new analgesics, whether safer opioids or non-opioid drugs, are urgently needed. Fortunately, there has been significant progress.

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NKTR-181, from Nektar Therapeutics, is a new kind of opioid under “fast track” FDA review. It was designed with safety in mind, because it enters the nervous system slowly as a result of its unique chemical structure. NKTR-181 is the only abuse-deterrent opioid in the drug development pipeline designed to reduce the “high” and “drug liking” that can lead to addiction. Practical Pain Management recently gave it four out of five stars as a future analgesic.

Desmetramadol, from Syntrix Pharmaceuticals, is another opioid in early testing. Developed with support from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, desmetramadol is designed as a safer version of tramadol, a Schedule IV opioid. Researchers are looking at the results of a recent clinical trial to see whether the new drug “provides the safety and pain relief of tramadol without its metabolic issues.”

VX-150, from Vertex Pharmaceuticals, is a sodium channel inhibitor that late last year finished a “proof-of-concept” Phase II trial successfully. It acts specifically on sodium channels to block the pain caused by small fiber neuropathy. Because these channels are not expressed in the brain, VX-150 should have few if any cognitive side effects. Phase III clinical trials are expected to start later this year.

Tanezumab, from Pfizer and Eli Lilly, just completed a Phase III clinical study for chronic low back pain. The results showed that tanezumab injections were associated with a statistically significant improvement in low back pain compared with placebo. Tanezumab is also being studied as a treatment for osteoarthritis, although there are some lingering concerns about its side-effects.

Finally, the novel compound AT-121 from Astraea Therapeutics is showing promise as a non-addictive opioid analgesic. Researchers created AT-121 to bind to both the mu opioid receptor and the FQ peptide receptor, a combination that blocks the unwanted side effects of current opioid analgesics. Preclinical testing of AT-121 in animals found that it was more potent than morphine, but did not produce physical dependence or tolerance at high doses. The National Institute on Drug Abuse recently called AT-121 a “promising alternative to opioid pain medications.”

Improved understanding of the nervous system and of chronic painful disorders is also contributing to drug development. A recent review in Frontiers in Pharmacology looks at emerging “safer opioids” that provide effective pain relief with fewer side effects. The review explains that the new goal of drug developers is to target opioid receptors in injured or diseased tissues, while avoiding the brain to reduce cognitive side effects and minimize risk of abuse, addiction and overdose.

And new genetic research is identifying genes involved in painful neuropathies. For instance, a recent case report found that a variant in the gene PMP22 is linked to painful peripheral neuropathy in Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease.

With the prevalence of chronic pain increasing as the population ages, the development of safer, more effective analgesics is critical. Advances in drug development techniques and better understanding of painful disorders should accelerate the process.  

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

New Non-Opioid Drug Effective in Treating Low Back Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Pfizer and Eli Lilly have announced positive results from a large Phase 3 study evaluating an experimental non-opioid pain reliever as a treatment for chronic low back pain.

Patients receiving 10 mg injections of tanezumab showed statistically significant improvement in back pain at 16 weeks compared to placebo. A lower dose of tanezumab 5 mg was not as effective. Over 1,800 people with chronic low back pain in North America, Europe and Asia participated in the study.

Tanezumab is a humanized monoclonal antibody that targets nerve growth factor (NGF), a protein that increases in the body because of injury, inflammation or chronic pain. Tanezumab binds to NGF and inhibits pain signals from muscles, skin and organs from reaching the brain.

"This study demonstrates the potential of tanezumab to treat individuals suffering from moderate-to-severe chronic low back pain who have been unable to achieve relief with currently available medicines," said Ken Verburg, Pfizer’s tanezumab development team leader.

“This is one of the longest studies conducted to date in chronic low back pain. We look forward to further analyzing these results, and believe the data from this study will support our planned future global regulatory submissions in chronic low back pain."

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Pizer and Eli Lilly have also reported positive findings in evaluating tanezumab for the treatment of osteoarthritis. The Food and Drug Administration granted “fast track” designation to tanezumab in 2017 to help speed its development.

Tanezumab has a history of safety concerns. Clinical studies were halted in 2010 after Pfizer reported some osteoarthritis patients receiving the drug had worse symptoms and needed joint replacement surgery. Another safety issue arose in 2012 when tanezumab caused adverse changes in the nervous system of animals.  Most clinical studies of tanezumab did not resume until 2015.

In the current study, rapidly progressive osteoarthritis (RPOA) was observed in 1.4 percent of patients receiving tanezumab and 0.1 percent of patients in the other treatment groups. Joint fractures and total joint replacements were experienced in 0.4 percent and 0.7 percent of tanezumab-treated patients, respectively, while none were observed in the other treatment groups.

In addition to back pain, the ongoing Phase 3 program for tanezumab includes studies in osteoarthritis pain and cancer pain due to bone metastases.

CBD Is Now Regulated and That May Be a Good Thing

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

The legal status of cannabidiol (CBD) is changing. Once classified exclusively as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, CBD is now legal under federal law. And this means regulation.

The 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from Schedule I. Hemp is a strain of marijuana with very low levels of THC, but high amounts of CBD.  This has opened the door to a legal market for CBD products, including food and supplements. But there’s a catch. The FDA has strict regulations about CBD being used in dietary supplements or promoted as medical treatments.

“It’s unlawful under the FD&C Act (Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act) to introduce food containing added CBD or THC into interstate commerce, or to market CBD or THC products as, or in, dietary supplements, regardless of whether the substances are hemp-derived,” FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, said in a December 2018 statement.

“Among other things, the FDA requires a cannabis product (hemp-derived or otherwise) that is marketed with a claim of therapeutic benefit, or with any other disease claim, to be approved by the FDA for its intended use before it may be introduced into interstate commerce. This is the same standard to which we hold any product marketed as a drug for human or animal use.”

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 The FDA has a FAQ page about cannabis that answers some basic questions:

"Can products that contain THC or cannabidiol (CBD) be sold as dietary supplements? A. No."

"Is it legal, in interstate commerce, to sell a food to which THC or CBD has been added? A. No."

The FDA has reason to be concerned. Product quality for CBD products is iffy at best. An investigation by the NBC affiliate in Miami (see “Patients Are Being Duped”) found that 20 of 35 CBD products tested had less than half the amount of CBD advertised on the label. Some samples had no CBD at all.

Other recent analyses have found THC, pesticides, synthetic cannabinoids and toxic solvents in CBD products.

Moreover, a lack of regulatory oversight has led to an abundance of false, misleading or unsubstantiated claims. A recent review of CBD in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology found that “CBD has been touted for many ailments for which it has not been studied, and in those diseases with evaluable human data, it generally has weak or very weak evidence.”

There is a lot of research on CBD going back years. The FDA’s approval of the CBD-based drug Epidiolex for rare childhood seizure disorders and a 2018 review that found potential for treating multiple sclerosis symptoms are important indicators of CBD’s medical value. At the same time, researchers have found no benefit in treating spinal cord injury, Crohn’s disease and osteoarthritis.

Yet CBD is now being widely promoted as a wellness product, and added to everything from coffee and pastries to bath oils and mascara. So it is not surprising that the FDA is concerned that people may be duped or put at risk.

The FDA is not alone in this. The New York City Department of Health has banned CBD products from being sold in bars and restaurants. Maine, New York, and Ohio are also banning CBD edibles.

For medically complicated people with chronic illness, regulation could be beneficial. At present these patients face significant risks with CBD products. Tainted CBD may cause unexpected allergic reactions or drug interactions. And contaminated CBD could trigger a positive result on a urine drug test, a common part of pain management amid the opioid crisis. Regulatory oversight could help reduce these risks. 

The legal and regulatory landscape surrounding CBD is shifting quickly. The FDA and state government agencies are watching closely and starting to intervene. This may flush out bad actors in the CBD marketplace and improve product quality and reliability. A stable marketplace with reliable products may be a net gain for the people who stand to benefit the most from CBD.

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

FDA Warns Drug Distributor

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has sent a warning letter to a wholesale drug distributor rebuking the company for its handling of several tampering cases involving oxycodone and other medications.

The letter to the CEO of the McKesson Corporation involves incidents in 2016 when pharmacies notified the company about the tampering and theft of medications it had supplied them with.    

In one such case, a Rite Aid pharmacy in Michigan found that the seal to a bottle labeled as containing 100 tablets of oxycodone had been broken. Inside the bottle a pharmacist found 15 tablets of Aleve, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pain reliever.  Two other Rite Aid pharmacies also reported to the company that oxycodone bottles had been tampered with. McKesson investigated the reports and determined the tampering and thefts likely occurred while the bottles were in its possession.  

Similar tampering incidents involved drugs used to treat bipolar disorder, high blood pressure and HIV.

According to the FDA, McKesson did little to identify and quarantine other products in its distribution system that also may have been tampered with and failed to warn other pharmacies that illegitimate products were in the supply chain.

"This is simply unacceptable. A distributor’s failure to have systems in place to investigate and quarantine suspect and illegitimate products within their control is a violation of the law," said FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, in a statement.

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"But this is even more concerning given that we’re in the midst of a widespread opioid crisis. Opioids that leave the legitimate supply chain could end up being sold illegally, or a patient who was appropriately prescribed these drugs to treat pain may not get the treatment they need or may unknowingly take a medication that’s not meant for them."

The FDA did not say why it waited so long to send the warning letter or notify the public about the 2016 tampering incidents. McKesson is the first company to receive a warning letter under the Drug Supply Chain Security Act (DSCSA), which was enacted by Congress in 2013.

McKesson is one of the largest wholesale drug distributors in the country. It is being sued by dozens of states, cities and counties for its role in the opioid crisis. In 2017, McKesson was fined $150 million for failing to report suspicious orders for oxycodone, hydrocodone and other controlled substances. In 2008, the company agreed to pay $13.25 million in penalties for similar violations.

FDA: Pain Patients Dependent On Opioids Are Not Addicted

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has released new guidance to drug makers to streamline the development of buprenorphine products to treat opioid addiction. Commonly known by the brand name Suboxone, buprenorphine has long dominated the market for addiction treatment.

Of importance to pain patients is a statement about the guideline by FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, that seeks to clarify the difference between opioid addiction and patients who need opioids for pain relief.

Gootlieb said there is still stigma and misunderstanding – even in the medical and addiction fields – about the difference between opioid addiction and dependence.

“Because of the biology of the human body, everyone who uses a meaningful dose of opioids for a modest length of time develops a physical dependence. This means that there are withdrawal symptoms after the use stops,” Gottlieb said. “A physical dependence to an opioid drug is very different than being addicted to such a medication.

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“Addiction requires the continued use of opioids despite harmful consequences on someone’s life. Addiction involves a psychological preoccupation to obtain and use opioids above and beyond a physical dependence. But someone who is physically dependent on opioids as a result of the treatment of pain but who is not craving the drugs is not addicted.”

Someone who is physically dependent on opioids as a result of the treatment of pain but who is not craving the drugs is not addicted.
— Dr. Scott Gottlieb, FDA Commissioner

In recent years new and generic formulations of buprenorphine have been released in tablets, sublingual films, injections and implants, and the FDA is trying to promote the development of more of them.

The guidance released by the agency basically tells drug makers they may be able to submit new drug applications for buprenorphine products without conducting the safety and efficacy trials that are usually required for other medications.

“The guidance we’re finalizing today is one of the many steps we’re taking to help advance the development of new treatments for opioid use disorder, and promote novel formulations or delivery mechanisms of existing drugs to better tailor available medicines to individuals’ needs,” Gottlieb said. “Our goal is to advance the development of new and better ways of treating opioid use disorder to help more Americans access successful treatments.”

There are currently only three drugs approved by the FDA for medication-assisted treatment (MAT) – buprenorphine, methadone and naltrexone. Physicians wishing to prescribe buprenorphine to patients must have a special certification from the DEA and are limited in the number of patients they can treat.

Buprenorphine is an opioid that is also used to treat pain. When combined with naloxone, buprenorphine reduces cravings for opioids and lowers the risk of abuse.

Some addicts have discovered that buprenorphine can also be used to get high or to ease their withdrawal pain from heroin and other opioids. Buprenorphine is such a popular street drug that the National Forensic Laboratory Information System ranked buprenorphine as the third most diverted opioid medication in the U.S. in 2014. 

Diarrhea Drug Involved in Growing Number of Overdoses

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A little over a year ago, the Food and Drug Administration asked Johnson & Johnson and other drug makers to limit the number of anti-diarrhea pills they sell. FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, said the “unprecedented and novel action” was needed because Imodium and other over-the-counter formulations of loperamide were being abused by opioid addicts.  

A few of us guffawed at the news as another example of government regulation gone amuck.

But it turns out there is cause for concern.

Researchers at Rutgers University have documented that overdoses of loperamide have been steadily increasing in number and severity, and have even resulted in some deaths.

Their study, published in the journal Clinical Toxicology, found a growing number of people addicted to opioids who are using loperamide to prevent or self-treat withdrawal symptoms. Some are even taking massive doses to get a high similar to heroin, fentanyl or oxycodone.

The New Jersey Poison Control Center has reported several fatalities or near-fatalities from loperamide in the past 12 months.

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“When used appropriately, loperamide is a safe and effective treatment for diarrhea – but when misused in large doses, it is more toxic to the heart than other opioids which are classified under federal policy as controlled dangerous substances,” said senior author Diane Calello, MD, executive director of New Jersey Poison Control at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

“Overdose deaths occur not because patients stop breathing, as with other opioids, but due to irregular heartbeat and cardiac arrest.”

The researchers reviewed toxicology cases in a national poison control center database from 2011 to 2016, and found a 91 percent increase in loperamide overdoses during that time period.  In 2015 alone, there were 916 cases and two deaths.

Patients who misused loperamide were predominantly young Caucasian men and women. The majority used extremely high doses of loperamide, the equivalent of 50 to 100 two-milligram pills per day.

“Possible ways of restricting loperamide misuse include limiting the daily or monthly amount an individual could purchase, requiring retailers to keep personal information about customers, requiring photo identification for purchase and placing medication behind the counter,” Calello said. "Most importantly, consumers need to understand the very real danger of taking this medication in excessive doses."

Misuse of loperamide is concerning because it is readily available over-the-counter, undetectable in routine drug tests, and can be bought in large quantities online or in retail stores.

In 2017, the FDA added a warning label to loperamide products cautioning consumers not to ingest high doses. Some drug makers are now selling the anti-diarrhea pills in smaller packages and in blister packs that are harder to open.

FDA Pushing for Over-The-Counter Sales of Naloxone

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has launched an “unprecedented” effort to support over-the-counter sales of naloxone, an overdose recovery drug credited with saving thousands of lives. The FDA has developed new drug labeling — at taxpayer expense — to encourage drug makers to start selling naloxone without a prescription.

“This is the first time the FDA has proactively developed and tested a DFL (drug facts label) for a drug to support development of an OTC product. We proactively designed, tested and validated the key labeling requirements necessary to approve an OTC version of naloxone and make it available to patients,” FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, said in a statement.

“I personally urge companies to take notice of this pathway that the FDA has opened for them and come to the Agency with applications as soon as possible.”

FDA proposed label for evzio

FDA proposed label for evzio

Curiously, one of the labels the FDA developed would support sales of Evzio, a controversial naloxone auto-injector that sells for about $3,700.

A recent U.S. Senate report accused Kaleo – the company that makes Evzio – of inflating its price by 600% to “capitalize on the opportunity” of a “well established public health crisis.” The report estimates Medicare and Medicaid paid over $142 million in excess costs to Kaleo for its Evzio injectors.

Kaleo has since announced plans for a generic version of Evzio to be available in mid-2019 at a reduced price of $178.

The FDA has also developed an OTC label for Narcan, a naloxone nasal spray that sells for about $135.

Last month, federal health officials called naloxone an “essential element” of government efforts to reduce deaths from opioid overdoses, and urged doctors to co-prescribe naloxone to pain patients talking relatively modest doses of 50 morphine milligram equivalents (MME) or more per day.

The drumbeat for naloxone comes at a time when sales are already booming. According to the healthcare data firm IQVIA, naloxone sales grew from $21 million in 2011 to over $274 million in 2016, and are projected to reach $500 million by 2020. Many of these purchases are made through Medicare or Medicaid, or government funded grants that supply naloxone at no cost to first responders, hospitals and addiction treatment clinics. 

According to one estimate by the CDC, naloxone reversed over 26,000 opioid overdoses from 1996 to 2014, and advocates say the drug has likely prevented thousands of deaths since then.

Earlier this month, naloxone was credited with saving a dozen lives at a suspected fentanyl mass overdose that left one man dead in Chico, California.

“Without that, I’m convinced that we would have had certainly four or five, if not more, additional fatalities,” Chico Police Chief Michael O’Brien told The Los Angeles Times. “There’s no doubt it saved lives.”

Is Naloxone Increasing Opioid Abuse?

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There’s no doubt naloxone saves lives, but some researchers say the drug has had little effect on the opioid epidemic and may in fact be making it worse.

In a study recently published by SSRN, an open access online journal, two economics professors said naloxone may raise the risk of an overdose by providing a “safety net” to opioid abusers -- in effect giving them a second chance to abuse more drugs. In an anlaysis of Google search results, they found anecdotal evidence that drug crimes and overdoses increased in states where there was easy access to naloxone.

“Expanding naloxone access increases opioid abuse and opioid-related crime, and does not reduce opioid-related mortality. In fact, in some areas, particularly the Midwest, expanding naloxone access has increased opioid-related mortality. Opioid-related mortality also appears to have increased in the South and most of the Northeast as a result of expanding naloxone access,” wrote Jennifer Doleac, PhD, Texas A&M University, and co-author Anita Mukherjee, PhD, University of Wisconsin.

“Our results show that broad naloxone access may be limited in its ability to reduce the epidemic’s death toll because not only does it not address the root causes of addiction, but it may exacerbate them.”

Doleac and Mukherjee say naloxone may give drug abusers a false sense of security, encouraging them to seek “a higher high” with more dangerous drugs like illicit fentanyl. The researchers said public health officials should prepare for these unintended consequences by offering addiction treatment along with naloxone.

Government-supported efforts to increase naloxone sales are not confined to the federal government. As PNN has reported, a new state law in California requires doctors to “offer” naloxone prescriptions to pain patients deemed at high risk of an opioid overdose. Nothing in the law requires patients to obtain naloxone, yet some pain sufferers say they are being “blackmailed” by pharmacists who refuse to fill their opioid scripts unless naloxone is also purchased. Patients around the country report similar experiences.