Health beyond the headlines

Zohydro: The Fix Is In

A reluctant bet against public health

By June H. Kim

Published December 19, 2013

By going long on the California-based pharmaceutical company Zogenix, I am, unfortunately, betting against public health. Full disclosure: I’ve purchased shares in the company.

I placed this bet on the heels of a recent, and exceedingly bizarre decision, by the FDA to approve of the company’s newest product, Zohydro ER (extended-release), the first hydrocodone-only prescription painkiller to hit the market. Despite an 11-2 vote against approval by a committee of the FDA’s own advisors, the world’s largest market for hydrocodone will soon have a new prescription to add to one already sizeable problem.

Believe me, I would be ecstatic if public health ends up victorious, if the risk evaluation and mitigation strategies (REMS) proposed by the FDA are effective deterrents against abuse, and if I don’t make a dime.

So why would I bet against my field?  Have I lost my lust for public health?

No. In truth, I have lost faith is some of the guardians of public health. I will explain why, but first I need to provide some context. Back in 1995, the FDA approved an extended-release (ER) formulation of an oxycodone-containing opioid called OxyContin, under the pretense that it would be less prone to abuse than immediate-release formulations.

Boy, were they wrong!

The more resourceful soon found that simply crushing OxyContin into a fine powder allowed for instant access. Abusers could then snort the powder or cook it up and inject it. It would take more than a decade of unprecedented abuse and one $600 million lawsuit before a change was deemed necessary.




In 2010, OxyContin ER was silently reformulated with the abuse deterrent properties shown above, which make crushing the pill into powder nearly impossible. Ostensibly, this new formulation was not as popular as the old version. Using data from the National Poison Data System, one study (underwritten by Purdue Pharma) showed that abuse exposures to OxyContin decreased 36% in the two years after reformulation compared to the year prior, while exposures to other opioids, including street heroin, increased.

The FDA has acknowledged the effectiveness of these abuse deterrent properties in their approval of a new label for OxyContin, and has even said the development of new painkillers with similar formulations is a “public health priority for the FDA.”

So, why haven’t they ensured Zohydro comes with these same protections? Why block generic versions of OxyContin ER (without the abuse deterrent properties) one day and switch course and approve Zohydro the next?

Confused yet? So am I.

There’s more. In the rush to get Zohydro on the market, only one efficacy study was deemed necessary. Further, the study used an enriched enrollment design, which includes what amounts to a wash-out period. In this design, all 510 study participants are given Zohydro over a six week period. Those who did not respond to or did not tolerate the medication (e.g., due to adverse effects) were excluded.

Only 59% of enrolled subjects made it to randomization, where they were randomly selected to either continue the treatment or receive a placebo while being tapered off the drug. Inherent in this design is the study question, “among people already responding well to Zohydro, will continuing to receive treatment be more effective for pain relief than discontinuing treatment?”

Beyond the valid concern that adverse effects due to treatment are often underestimated in these designs, there is the even greater problem of the limited generalizability of the findings. Excluding patients that did not react well to Zohydro does not give us an understanding of the drug’s effects in a representative population. Yet, these results were used to make a case for the effectiveness of Zohydro for all pain patients, not just among those who are already responsive.

Further, in the FDA’s summary review of the approval, Bob Rappaport (Director, Division of Anesthesia, Analgesia, and Addiction Products) states that severely restricting access to opioid formulations is “not acceptable in the absence of equivalently effective analgesic products” (page 32).

When making comparisons of treatment effectiveness against a placebo, how could you find any equivalent alternatives?

For the FDA, public health is apparently taking a backseat to industry in this battle. The game appears to be fixed, and I am just hedging my bets.

Disclosure: As stated above, the author has holdings (along with mixed feelings) in Zogenix. The position stated by the author is his own, and does not reflect those of, the Mailman School of Public Health, or Columbia University. A copy of the FDA’s Summary Review of the Zohydro ruling can be found here.


Edited by Joshua Brooks

6 Responses to “Zohydro: The Fix Is In”

  1. June 21, 2014 at 9:18 am, Adam said:

    Well Purdue have put a stop to any profitable future to Zohydro then. Its crazy really as Zomorph is identical to the capsule design of Zohydro and there is nobody complaining about that one. Morphine is even more addictive than Hydrocodone!

    Hydrocodone is dangerous to inject where as Morphine is not. Where is the logic?

    I sold my shares at a loss after the news from Purdue came out, so this is not a promo post, just a curiosity really.


    • July 08, 2014 at 10:56 am, June said:

      The Purdue news is somewhat amusing. There’s been much fussing about “abuse deterrence” (e.g. see here), yet the way I see it (now), the acetaminophen that’s cut with the product is the real “abuse deterrent”.


  2. January 14, 2014 at 6:56 am, Adam said:

    There are some people who will not find good analgesia in any other compound but hydrocodone, so it does need to be there.

    I would like to see that trial as well. Opium only needs to be increased up to a certain point then the tolerance ‘flatlines’ and the same amount produces a consistent effect over a long periods of time. So for long term pain management it is a very good option, plus the wide spectrum of alkaloids in opium will have a very broad range of pain conditions it will treat.

    As for the shares I am having an internal conflict, as I was with my shares in Jazz and there Xyrem product, good for the wallet bad for the soul.


    • January 14, 2014 at 4:37 pm, June said:

      I feel the same way… can we make rational decisions in an irrational system?


  3. January 13, 2014 at 12:40 pm, June said:

    I agree completely. They say there is an “absence of equivalently effective analgesic products”, but they won’t find any suitable alternatives if all of the trials are comparing effectiveness against a placebo.

    I want to see the trial comparing current hydrocodone/oxycodone formulations against cannabis or a tincture like you mentioned.


  4. January 12, 2014 at 5:32 am, Adam said:

    I’m in the same position, I can see that this will sell as its addictive and has no abuse deterrent. But I am against this type of medication as other ways are so much better e.g. cannabis, even an opium tincture would be better as you can’t snort or inject opium and if it was prepared in an oral suspension then you could not even smoke it, but there is no patent available for that so no monopoly.


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