New Drug Could Be A "Game-Changer" For Opioid Addiction

Photographed by Tayler Smith.

The Food and Drug Administration approved a new medication on Thursday that some experts are saying "could be a game-changer" for people with opioid addictions.

Sublocade is the first once-monthly injectable buprenorphine product — an opioid partial agonist, which produces some opioid-like effects such as euphoria in order to essentially wean someone from true opioids. Buprenorphine has previously been available as a daily pill or dissolvable film. By creating a lesser high, it can help people with addictions suffer less from withdrawals and also lowers the effect of other opioids.

It's the once-a-month nature of this particular form of buprenorphine that experts say could be important for people with opioid use disorder (OUD).

“This could become first-line [medication] for opioid addiction," Andrew Kolodny, co-director of opioid policy research at Brandeis University, told STAT. "It could open up opportunities for getting more patients on buprenorphine.”

Since patients previously had to take buprenorphine daily, and the drug exhibits opioid-like effects, some critics worried that it would simply be like replacing one addiction with another. The long-lasting effect of Sublocade lowers that risk.

"There’s still a tremendous amount of stigma among patients and in communities about taking any opioid agonist in treatment," Chinazo Cunningham, MD, associate chief of general internal medicine at Montefiore Medical Center, told STAT. "I hope that a reduction in potential diversion [from long-acting buprenorphine] may get more providers to offer buprenorphine [of all kinds]. The more options the better, so we can match treatment to patients’ needs."

As the opioid crisis in the U.S. continues to get more dire, drug companies, the FDA, and pharmacists have been doing more to help. Both Walgreens and CVS began stocking naloxone, an antidote for opioid overdoses, in the last couple of years. And CVS also announced earlier this year that it would be limiting opioid prescriptions to a 7-day supply. In June, for the first time ever, the FDA pulled an opioid pain-reliever from the market.

None of these steps will put an end to opioid addiction and overdose on their own, of course, but it's evidence that the government, drug-makers, pharmacists, and plenty of other people recognize that opioid addiction is a serious problem and they're working together to solve it.

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