FDA advisers set high bar for new opioids


During an opioid-addiction epidemic, can any new opioid pain drug meet prevailing safety demands to gain regulatory approval?

The FDA building in White Oak, in Silver Spring, MD, is shown.

On Jan. 14 and 15, a Food and Drug Administration advisory committee voted virtually unanimously against two new opioid formulations and evenly split for and against a third; the 2 days of data and discussion showed how high a bar new opioids face these days for getting onto the U.S. market.

The bar’s height is very understandable given how many Americans have become addicted to opioids over the past decade, more often than not by accident while using pain medications as they believed they had been directed, said experts during the sessions held on the FDA’s campus in White Oak, Md.

Among the many upshots of the opioid crisis, the meetings held to discuss these three contender opioids highlighted the bitter irony confronting attempts to bring new, safer opioids to the U.S. market: While less abusable pain-relief medications that still harness the potent analgesic power of mu opioid receptor agonists are desperately desired, new agents in this space now receive withering scrutiny over their safeguards against misuse and abuse, and over whether they add anything meaningfully new to what’s already available. While these demands seem reasonable, perhaps even essential, it’s unclear whether any new opioid-based pain drugs will ever fully meet the safety that researchers, clinicians, and the public now seek.

A special FDA advisory committee that combined the Anesthetic and Analgesic Drug Products Advisory Committee with members of the Drug Safety and Risk Management Advisory Committee considered the application for three different opioid drugs from three separate companies. None received a clear endorsement. Oxycodegol, a new type of orally delivered opioid molecule engineered to slow brain entry and thereby delay an abuser’s high, got voted down without any votes in favor and 27 votes against agency approval. Aximris XR, an extended-release oxycodone formulation that successfully deterred intravenous abuse but had no deterrence efficacy for intranasal or oral abuse failed by a 2-24 vote against. The third agent, CTC, a novel formulation of the schedule IV opioid tramadol with the NSAID celecoxib designed to be analgesic but with limited opioid-abuse appeal, came the closest to meaningful support with a tied 13-13 vote from advisory committee members for and against agency approval. FDA staff takes advisory committee opinions and votes into account when making their final decisions about drug marketing approvals.

In each case, the committee members, mostly the same roster assembled for each of the three agents, identified specific concerns with the data purported to show each drug’s safety and efficacy. But the gathered experts and consumer representatives also consistently cited holistic challenges to approving new opioids and the stiffer criteria these agents face amid a continuing wave of opioid misuse and abuse.

“In the context of the public health issues, we don’t want to be perceived in any way of taking shortcuts,” said Linda S. Tyler, PharmD,, an advisory committee member and professor of pharmacy and chief pharmacy officer at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. “There is no question that for a new product to come to market in this space it needs to add to what’s on the market, meet a high bar, and provide advantages compared with what’s already on the market,” she said.


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