As the opioid crisis worsens, one Boston-based pharmaceutical company has used some impressive biology to create what it says amounts to a non-addictive, non-opioid painkiller.
As the New York Times reports, Vertex Pharmaceuticals seems to have shown some promising results in Phase 3 clinical trials, announced earlier this week in a statement, for patients who experienced "moderate-to-severe acute pain" after getting surgery.
Whereas opioids generally target both the brain and the body, which ultimately leads to their addictiveness, non-opioid drugs like Vertex's VX-548 focus on peripheral nerves, or those outside of the brain and spine, the NYT explains. By blocking pain at the source, the logic goes, it can be averted before reaching the brain and developing the kind of feedback loop that lends itself to dependency.
This concept isn't exactly novel to Vertex. Still, as Reuters points out in its reporting on the matter, other drugmakers like Eli Lilly and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have failed to make effective non-opioid painkillers, setting VX-548 apart.
Vertex, a publicly traded company, has not released full data or results from the Phase 3 trials. But in media interviews, researchers and analysts within and outside the company are already singing the drug's praises as it prepares to file for approval with the Food and Drug Administration later this year.
"This has the potential to be a blockbuster," Yale pharmacology and neuroscience expert Stephen Waxman, who was once paid a $1,000 speaking honorarium by Vertex but was not involved in the drug's trials, told the NYT. "I like to think it’s the beginning of nonaddictive medicines for pain."
As the press release admits, VX-548 didn't meet its secondary goal of superior pain reduction over a combination of the opioid hydrocodone and the over-the-counter pill acetaminophen, but the company's stock value jumped two percent regardless. As Reuters reports, the company's stock to date has risen 35 percent in the past year as it continuously announced good news out of its trials.
"Investors and the company did not expect superiority over opioid[s]," Wells Fargo analyst Mohit Bansal told Reuters, "as there is a huge safety (and) addiction advantage even without that."
With all the social damage wreaked by opioids, there's no question that they remain the gold standard treatment for treating severe pain. But there's long been a need for a middle ground between OTC medicines for pain and the heavy-duty addictiveness of opioids, which could, some analysts predict, be something of a Holy Grail if found to be safe and effective.
"I don't think anybody expects that this drug will replace or mean the end of opioid pain medicines," Piper Sandler analyst Christopher Raymond told Reuters, "but it absolutely offers an alternative that is sorely needed."
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