HARI SREENIVASAN: Major pharmaceutical companies are reportedly recruiting thousands of recreational drug users to test a new generation of medicines that deter addiction. The impact of the new meds could be significant.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration calls prescription drug addiction a national epidemic and estimates that more than two million Americans abuse opioids. Officials say roughly 45 people die of overdoses every day.
Financial Times reporter David Crow reported this story, and joins me now to explain exactly how these drug tests are being conducted.
So, it shocks people to say, wait a minute, they are recruiting drug users. How do the trials work?
DAVID CROW, The Financial Times: So, basically, they recruit these drug users, they find them through various forms of marketing, normally word of mouth.
You have to have been a recreational drug user, but you cannot be addicted or dependent. You then come onto these trials. They last anywhere between sort of three days and 30 days. And you basically are asked to abuse the old opioid, the sort of originator product that is fundamentally very easy to abuse, the new abuse-deterrent product, and then a placebo. You’re not told what they are.
And then you’re asked to score them in a drug-liking scale. And for the pharmaceutical companies developing these new medicines, you want to get a lower score, nearer the placebo than the original product.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, you said — you spoke to folks that were asked to take 21 pills in five minutes in one of the tests?
DAVID CROW: One of the people I spoke to took 21 pills in five minutes. That’s correct.
The clinic I spoke to afterwards, they said, well, the vast majority of those were placebos.
HARI SREENIVASAN: But he wouldn’t have known that.
DAVID CROW: He wouldn’t have known that. And even taking 21 pills of anything in five minutes is quite difficult.
HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what sort of companies are doing this? How big of a market is this?
DAVID CROW: It is a huge market. I mean, probably the best-known name that is trying to develop these abuse-deterrent opioids is Pfizer.
But there is an Israeli company called Teva which is very big in this. And then there are some privately held companies. Purdue Pharma is one of the biggest purveyors of oxycodone in this country, and they’re developing one also.
HARI SREENIVASAN: So, this is in efforts of finding a drug that somebody could take for pain, but would be less addicted to if they tried to overdose on it?
DAVID CROW: It’s about stopping them from tampering with the pill to make the experience of abusing it more enjoyable.
HARI SREENIVASAN: So, that’s to snort it or grind it up or…
DAVID CROW: Snort it, grind it up, dissolve it, and put it into the syringe and inject it.
And so these pills have things like very hard coatings. They have a gumming agent that makes them harder to dissolve. But they don’t solve the problem of abusing these pills orally. You can still take more of them than you might otherwise be meant to.
HARI SREENIVASAN: So, is there the possibility that someone who doesn’t know they’re getting these opioids could actually come out worse after one of these trials?
Let’s say they had to take 21 pills, and it was the opioid, and they are kind of abusing a bad drug.
DAVID CROW: Well, these people are already abusers. They have to have experienced using the drug previously. There is a test to make sure that they’re not addicted.
So, they go through this washout period. If their bodies show signs of withdrawal, they are not allowed onto the trial.
But there are some addiction experts who think that this is not a foolproof system and that the line between abuse and addiction can often be very blurred. And so some of these people might not be addicted today, but you don’t know that they are not going to become addicted further down the line.
HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, David Crow of The Financial Times, thanks so much.
DAVID CROW: Thanks for having me.