Will a Buprenorphine Implant Drive Up Patient Compliance?

By Zachary Siegel 01/05/16

Pharmaceutical companies are getting into dystopian territory with new drug implants. 

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Intended to promote better patient compliance with opioid maintenance drug buprenorphine, an experimental implant is being devised that would release a steady dose of the drug for up to six months. 

Until 2012, pharmaceutical company Reckitt-Benckiser had exclusive patent rights to the popular opioid treatment drug Suboxone. Since then, several pharmaceutical companies have jumped into the addiction market. Given the numbers of heroin users in the United States, roughly 669,000, business is booming. 

The buprenorphine opioid addiction market racked up $1.75 billion in sales last year, in the United States alone. 

According to the National Pain Report, Braeburn Pharmaceuticals and Titan Pharmaceuticals teamed up to develop a new drug, Probuphine, which will be reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration on January 12, 2016.

Buprenorphine, like lock and key, binds so tightly with opioid receptors that it renders drugs like oxycodone and heroin unable to produce euphoria. Oral buprenorphine, however, must be taken daily in order to maintain a high enough dose in the blood stream, so to cancel out the effects of other opiates. 

Probuphine is an investigational implant, about the size of a matchstick, which would be placed under the skin in one’s upper arm. It would release a steady dose of buprenorphine for up to six months. The intent is to promote patient compliance, which has long been a problem with many opioid treatments. 

A 2011 study found patients on medication-assisted therapy (MAT) who were not compliant were 10 times more likely to relapse. Twenty percent of the participants in the study stopped taking buprenorphine and relapsed within three months. The logic behind Probuphine is thus to make compliance as high as possible, and what better way is there to accomplish such a feat than to bypass human volition? 

So far, Probuphine has begun clinical trials but has yet to be approved. “The data from the final phase 3 trial, which was designed in collaboration with the FDA in response to questions raised in the complete response letter, is compelling and we look forward to presenting it on January 12,” said Braeburn Pharmaceuticals President and CEO Behshad Sheldon.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.