On October 24th, President Donald Trump signed a package of bills designed to confront and combat the nation’s opioid epidemic. On November 2nd, the FDA approved Dsuvia, an opioid painkiller 1,000 times stronger than morphine.
Dsuvia is restricted to limited use, only available in health care settings, such as hospitals, surgery centers and emergency rooms. However, critics worry the opioid will add fuel to an already ugly epidemic.
The FDA seemed to be expecting the backlash, and following the approval of the drug, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., issued the following statement:
Statement from FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., on agency’s approval of Dsuvia and the FDA’s future consideration of new opioids
The crisis of opioid addiction is an issue of great concern for our nation. Addressing it is a public health priority for the FDA. The agency is taking new steps to more actively confront this crisis, while also paying careful attention to the needs of patients and physicians managing pain. As part of these considerations, there’s been an important and robust public debate leading up to the regulatory decision on Dsuvia that merits a response. I want to take this opportunity to address some of the concerns that were raised, and more broadly, how I believe the FDA should consider the approval of new opioid pain medications that can help fill targeted medical needs.
Looking beyond this particular drug approval, I believe that we should consider whether we should be doing more to evaluate each candidate opioid, not just as an independent review decision, but rather also to consider each novel opioid drug in the context of the overall therapeutic armamentarium that’s available to patients and providers. As we look at the public health implications of each new approval, we should evaluate whether we need to take additional steps to systematically consider new opioids relative to the comparative benefit and risks of other opioids already on the market. We should consider whether we could do more in weighing approvals to ensure that new opioids are sufficiently better than existing drugs to justify their addition to the market in the context of the current crisis of abuse.
In this particular case, Dsuvia is a sublingual (under the tongue) formulation of sufentanil that’s delivered through a disposable, pre-filled, single-dose applicator. The medicine is restricted to use in certified medically-supervised health care settings ‒ such as hospitals, surgical centers and emergency departments ‒ for administration by a health care professional. Dsuvia, which was previously approved by the European Medicines Agency in July under the brand name Dzuveo, has some unique features in that the drug is delivered in a stable form that makes it ideally suited for certain special circumstances where patients may not be able to swallow oral medication, and where access to intravenous pain relief is not possible. This includes potential uses on the battlefield. For this reason, the Department of Defense (DoD) worked closely with the sponsor on the development of this new medicine. This opioid formulation, along with Dsuvia’s unique delivery device, was a priority medical product for the Pentagon because it fills a specific and important, but limited, unmet medical need in treating our nation’s soldiers on the battlefield. The involvement and needs of the DoD in treating soldiers on the battlefield were discussed by the advisory committee.
There are very tight restrictions being placed on the distribution and use of this product. We’ve learned much from the harmful impact that other oral opioid products can have in the context of the opioid crisis. We’ve applied those hard lessons as part of the steps we’re taking to address safety concerns for Dsuvia, including requiring a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) to accompany this drug. The REMS reflects the potential risks associated with this product and will tightly control its distribution and use. Importantly, the distribution system will restrict Dsuvia’s use to certified medically-supervised health care settings, an important step to help prevent misuse and abuse of Dsuvia. The FDA will continue to carefully monitor the implementation of the REMS associated with Dsuvia and compliance with its requirements, and we’ll work to quickly make regulatory adjustments if problems arise.
But underlying the debate surrounding this approval is a broader issue that must be addressed head on: why do we need an oral formulation of sufentanil – a more potent form of fentanyl that’s been approved for intravenous and epidural use in the U.S. since 1984 – on the market?
This question is especially critical in the context of the crisis of opioid addiction and evidence that opioids continue to be inappropriately prescribed, marketed, diverted and abused. Given this context, we need to address the question that I believe underlies the criticism raised in advance of this approval: to what extent should we evaluate each opioid solely on its own merits, and how should we also consider, within the broader context of our public health mission including the overall therapeutic armamentarium that we have available for addressing pain, the other opioid analgesics that are already on the market, the epidemic of opioid misuse and abuse that’s gripping our nation and the risk for illicit diversion and abuse?
I’m committed to considering these key questions as part of a comprehensive process that the FDA has underway to develop a formal benefit and risk framework for how the agency evaluates the safety and efficacy of opioid medicines.
Currently, in applying our statute and regulations, we generally consider each new drug approval – and each new opioid drug approval – largely on its own merits. As part of our review, we ask whether the individual drug meets the standard for safety and effectiveness, and whether additional controls are needed to ensure safe use of that specific drug.
But opioids are a unique class of medicines. Congress recently directed us to think differently about opioids as a drug class in enacting novel and specific authorities that enable the FDA to, among other things, require post-market studies to evaluate efficacy of opioids if we have concerns that these products may not be as effective as previously thought; to consider the risks associated with the misuse and abuse of opioids as a factor in how we make pre- and post-market regulatory decisions; to require opioids to be sold in unit dose packaging; and to require that certain opioids be dispensed with packaging or systems that enable the drugs to be safely disposed.
The FDA has already begun implementing these new authorities. And, even before Congress granted the FDA these new authorities, we have started to take a different approach to the benefit-risk evaluation of opioids. In the post-market setting, we’ve taken strong actions where appropriate, such as requesting the withdrawal of reformulated Opana ER from the market. In the pre-market setting, we routinely seek advisory committee input on new opioid product approvals. For example, at an October 2018 meeting of the Anesthetic and Analgesic Drug Products Advisory Committee, the committee recommended 10-3 that Dsuvia be approved. Committee members in attendance for the meeting included experts on pain management, medication safety, human factors and critical care nursing, who are anesthesiologists, pain specialists and pharmacists.
We’re also re-evaluating how we consider both the individual and public health impacts of new opioids as they are reviewed for approval. To that end, I’ve asked the professional staff at the FDA to evaluate a new framework for opioid analgesic approvals; one that provides a transparent process to delineate clearly, eventually in new guidance, how we intend to consider the benefits and risks of these products in the context of this crisis. As part of this process, we need to closely consider how we evaluate questions such as:
- How does the availability of an additional opioid drug benefit the public health through its ability to, for example, provide therapeutic differentiation, promote more appropriate access, or advance safer use of these medicines?
- Does the approval of an additional opioid drug create added risks for diversion, accidental overdose, abuse and misuse, or other concerns?
- If the approval of an additional opioid will create such added risks, will the new drug provide sufficient clinical differentiation that can benefit certain groups of patients, or offer other important clinical benefit, such that the benefits to patients of introducing the additional opioid outweigh the risks? And can the implementation of REMS help mitigate some of these risks?
Such a framework also would need to address the potential hurdles to product innovation. So, if we develop such a framework that takes into closer consideration the overall therapeutic armamentarium as we consider new opioid product approvals, and weighs new opioid approvals against the benefits and risks of existing drugs for the treatment of pain; then we’d also need to describe how we intend to characterize the benefits and risks of opioids, and what we believe the unmet medical needs are. In this way, innovators would know up front where the opportunities are for developing new drugs that meet the FDA’s standards for safety and effectiveness.
As part of the effort to consider and apply a more holistic approach, I will also be taking these questions, and a consideration of such a framework, to my Opioid Policy Steering Committee to evaluate what additional steps we may want to take within our own authority to consider these goals and the development of such a framework. There could also be other places where we would seek additional input, as well as help from Congress. We know now that our evaluation of opioids is different than how we assess drugs in other therapeutic classes. And Congress agreed with us that opioids are different. I believe that there are population-based considerations when it comes to drugs that are subject to such widespread abuse and misuse that warrant us considering each approval within a broad public health context.
This brings us back to discussion around today’s approval.
I believe that the unique aspects of Dsuvia, including those that make this drug a high priority for the Pentagon, differentiate this new formulation of sufentanil from other sufentanil products in a way that is consistent with population-based considerations for how it fits into the overall drug armamentarium. The FDA has made it a high priority to make sure our soldiers have access to treatments that meet the unique needs of the battlefield, including when intravenous administration is not possible for the treatment of acute pain related to battlefield wounds. The military application for this new medicine was carefully considered in this case. We understand the concerns about the availability of a high potency formulation of sufentanil and the associated risks. The FDA has implemented a REMS that reflects the potential risks associated with this product and mandates that Dsuvia will only be made available for use in a certified medically-supervised heath care setting, including its use on the battlefield.
To address concerns about the potential risks associated with Dsuvia, this product will have strong limitations on its use. It can’t be dispensed to patients for home use and should not be used for more than 72 hours. And it should only be administered by a health care provider using a single-dose applicator. That means it won’t be available at retail pharmacies for patients to take home. These measures to restrict the use of this product only within a supervised health care setting, and not for home use, are important steps to help prevent misuse and abuse of Dsuvia, as well reduce the potential for diversion. Because of the risks of addiction, abuse and misuse with opioids; Dsuvia is also to be reserved for use in patients for whom alternative pain treatment options have not been tolerated, or are not expected to be tolerated, where existing treatment options have not provided adequate analgesia, or where these alternatives are not expected to provide adequate analgesia. Like all opioids, Dsuvia will also carry a boxed warning about the serious risks of misuse and abuse, which can lead to addiction, overdose and death. It also includes a boxed warning about the serious risks, including extreme sleepiness, respiratory depression, coma and death, side effects that may be potentiated by the combined use with central nervous system depressants such as drugs called benzodiazepines. Common side effects of Dsuvia include nausea, headache, vomiting, dizziness and hypotension.
But I recognize that the debate goes beyond the characteristics of this particular product or the actions that we’re taking to mitigate this drug’s risks and preserve its differentiated benefits. We won’t sidestep what I believe is the real underlying source of discontent among the critics of this approval – the question of whether or not America needs another powerful opioid while in the throes of a massive crisis of addiction.
It’s an important question that has surfaced in past approval decisions and will come up again in the future. As a public health agency, we have an obligation to address this question openly and directly. As a physician and regulator, I won’t bypass legitimate questions and concerns related to our role in addressing the opioid crisis.
We owe an answer to those who support us in these decisions, and to those who may disagree. We owe an answer to patients with medical pain, and the innovators who take risks to develop products to help address their needs. We owe it to Americans who want the FDA to do our part to help end one of the biggest addiction crises of modern times, while we carefully balance these grave risks against patient needs.
The FDA, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, protects the public health by assuring the safety, effectiveness, and security of human and veterinary drugs, vaccines and other biological products for human use, and medical devices. The agency also is responsible for the safety and security of our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, dietary supplements, products that give off electronic radiation, and for regulating tobacco products.
Disclaimer: The viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at Healthcare Staffing Innovations, LLC.