US drugmaker hails new opioid painkiller
Nektar Therapeutics claims treatment can help halt US addiction crisis
A US biotech company says it has discovered a new opioid that can treat pain symptoms without generating the euphoric feeling that has fuelled America’s addiction crisis.
Nektar Therapeutics, based in San Francisco, says the drug has a novel chemical structure which means it crosses the blood-brain barrier more slowly than opioids such as Purdue Pharma’s Oxy-Contin, also known as “hillbilly heroin” for its highly addictive properties.
Drugmakers are racing to come up with a new generation of painkillers amid a US opioid addiction crisis that has been described as a national epidemic by the authorities, with 91 people dying each day by overdosing on the drugs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
More Americans die from drug overdoses than from car crashes or guns, and more than 26 mare being treated for addiction, according to CDC figures.
“We think we’ve made a huge quantum leap forward,” said Stephen Doberstein, chief scientific officer at Nektar. “It’s a fundamentally different approach that separates the analgesic efficacy from the addictive side effects .”
Nektar shares shot up nearly 30 per cent on the back of the announcement and were trading at $19.98 yesterday lunch time in New York.
Many of the bigger, diversified pharma companies have either steered clear of opioids or scaled back their operations. But a handful rely heavily on sales of opioid painkillers, including Depomed and Purdue. Others, such as En do Pharmaceuticals and Mallinckrodt, generate a large chunk of their revenue from the pills.
Nektar yesterday released the results of a large clinical trial of its drug, codenamed NKTR-181, which showed the medicine was as effective as traditional opioids at treating chronic back pain. Patient pain scores dropped by an average of 65 per cent during one part of the study. A separate study into the abuse potential of NKTR-181 showed that patients taking the recommended dose reported significantly lower “drug liking” scores than for Oxy-Contin.
Mr Doberstein said the company was conducting another trial to determine whether patients would become high on significantly more than the recommended maximum dose of 400mg.
However, some doctors have argued that the US needs to dramatically reduce the number of opioids that are prescribed to patients rather than allowing pharmaceutical companies to launch new version soft he medicines.
Dr Andrew Kolodny, co-director of opioid research at the Schneider Institutes for Health Policy, said the problem with prescribing an opioid for a chronic condition such as lower back pain was that the drugs were “simply not that effective — even if there is less euphoria”. He warned that patients could still become “physiologically dependent” on opioids even if they did not experience a buzz.