Preventing Pain Pill Overdose, Death; Abuse-Deterrent Properties

 The FDA recently issued a final guidance to assist the pharmaceutical industry in developing opioid drug products with potentially abuse-deterrent properties.


Prescription opioid products are an important component of modern pain management. However, abuse and misuse of these products have created a serious and growing public health problem. To combat opioid misuse and abuse, the FDA is encouraging manufacturers to develop abuse-deterrent drugs that work correctly when taken as prescribed, but, for example, may be formulated in such a way that deters misuse and abuse, including making it difficult to snort or inject the drug for a more intense high. While drugs with abuse-deterrent properties are not “abuse-proof,” the FDA sees this guidance as an important step toward balancing appropriate access to opioids for patients with pain with the importance of reducing opioid misuse and abuse.


The document “Guidance for Industry: Abuse-Deterrent Opioids – Evaluation and Labeling” explains the FDA’s current thinking about the studies that should be conducted to demonstrate that a given formulation has abuse-deterrent properties. It also makes recommendations about how those studies should be performed and evaluated, and discusses what labeling claims may be approved based on the results of those studies.


“The science of abuse-deterrent medication is rapidly evolving, and the FDA is eager to engage with manufacturers to help make these medications available to patients who need them,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. “We feel this is a key part of combating opioid abuse. We have to work hard with industry to support the development of new formulations that are difficult to abuse but are effective and available when needed.”


Because opioid products are often manipulated for purposes of abuse by different routes of administration or to defeat extended-release (ER) properties, most abuse-deterrent technologies developed to date are intended to make manipulation more difficult or to make abuse of the manipulated product less attractive or less rewarding. It should be noted that these technologies have not yet proven successful at deterring the most common form of abuse—swallowing a number of intact capsules or tablets to achieve a feeling of euphoria.


Opioid products can be abused in a number of ways. For example, they can be swallowed whole, crushed and swallowed, crushed and snorted, crushed and smoked, or crushed, dissolved and injected. Abuse-deterrent technologies should target known or expected routes of abuse relevant to the proposed product. As a general framework, abuse-deterrent formulations can currently be categorized as follows:


  1. Physical/chemical barriers – Physical barriers can prevent chewing, crushing, cutting, grating, or grinding of the dosage form. Chemical barriers, such as gelling agents, can resist extraction of the opioid using common solvents like water, simulated biological media, alcohol, or other organic solvents. Physical and chemical barriers can limit drug release following mechanical manipulation, or change the physical form of a drug, rendering it less amenable to abuse.
  2. Agonist/antagonist combinations – An opioid antagonist can be added to interfere with, reduce, or defeat the euphoria associated with abuse. The antagonist can be sequestered and released only upon manipulation of the product. For example, a drug product can be formulated such that the substance that acts as an antagonist is not clinically active when the product is swallowed, but becomes active if the product is crushed and injected or snorted.
  3. Aversion – Substances can be added to the product to produce an unpleasant effect if the dosage form is manipulated or is used at a higher dosage than directed. For example, the formulation can include a substance irritating to the nasal mucosa if ground and snorted.
  4. Delivery System (including use of depot injectable formulations and implants) – Certain drug release designs or the method of drug delivery can offer resistance to abuse. For example, sustained-release depot injectable formulation or a subcutaneous implant may be difficult to manipulate.
  5. New molecular entities and prodrugs– The properties of a new molecular entity (NME) or prodrug could include the need for enzymatic activation, different receptor binding profiles, slower penetration into the central nervous system, or other novel effects. Prodrugs with abuse-deterrent properties could provide a chemical barrier to the in vitro conversion to the parent opioid, which may deter the abuse of the parent opioid. New molecular entities and prodrugs are subject to evaluation of abuse potential for purposes of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).
  6. Combination – Two or more of the above methods could be combined to deter abuse.
  7. Novel approaches – This category encompasses novel approaches or technologies that are not captured in the previous categories.


The science of abuse-deterrent technology is still relatively new and evolving. The final guidance is intended to assist drug makers who wish to develop opioid drug products with potentially abuse-deterrent properties. The FDA is working with many drug makers to support advancements in this area and help drug makers navigate the regulatory path to market as quickly as possible. In working with industry, the FDA will take a flexible, adaptive approach to the evaluation and labeling of potentially abuse-deterrent products.


“Development of abuse-deterrent products is a priority for the FDA, and we hope this guidance will lead to more approved drugs with meaningful abuse-deterrent properties,” said Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “While abuse-deterrent formulations do not make an opioid impossible to abuse and cannot wholly prevent overdose and death, they are an important part of the effort to reduce opioid misuse and abuse.”


The FDA believes it is critical to address the problem of opioid abuse while seeking to ensure that patients in pain have appropriate access to opioid products. Moreover, it is important that opioids without abuse-deterrent properties remain available for use in some clinical settings. For example, patients in hospice care and with difficulty swallowing may need access to opioid products that are in solution or that can be crushed.


While this final guidance does not address generic opioid products, the agency understands the importance of available generic options to ensure appropriate access to effective opioid drugs for patients who need them. The FDA is committed to supporting the development and use of generic drugs that have abuse-deterrent properties and is working on draft guidance in this area.


To help support the safe use of all opioid products, the FDA is working in many other ways to help prescribers and patients make the best possible choices about how to use these powerful drugs. The agency’s goal is to find the balance between appropriate access to opioids for patients with pain and the need to reduce opioid misuse and abuse.


See the FDA Announcement


See the FDA Guidance


See also Medical Risk Law, January 2014 Report: Prescription Painkillers: Risks for Patients, Pharmacists, and Physicians


See also Medical Risk Law, May 2013 Report: Drugs, Dosage, and Damage: Physician Liability for Prescribing or Administering Medication


See the Medical Risk Law March 25, 2015, Blog: Risks of Prescription and OTC Pain Medicines During Pregnancy


See the Medical Risk Law February 16, 2015, Blog: Pharmacy Owes Duty To Patient Not To Fill Excessive Prescriptions for Opioids 


See the Medical Risk Law October 8, 2014, Blog: Opioid Pain Pill Abusers Switch to Heroin; Heroin Overdose Deaths Double