Tox Tuesday: Synthetic Opiates

PrescriptionPills_PublicDomain2_blogKnown for their natural pain relieving elements, opiates are a well-known class of drugs that work by directly depressing the central nervous system and changing the way the brain perceives pain. Natural opium is derived from the opium poppy, and then used to make substances such as morphine, codeine, and thebaine. Synthetic and semi-synthetic opiates on the other hand, follow the same chemical structure as natural opiates, but are manufactured in laboratories and because of this can be made up to 50 times stronger than natural opium.

Synthetic opiates include brand name drugs such as OxyContin, Vicodin, and Demerol — all of which are prescribed to millions around the world each year for various levels of pain relief. It is due to these powerful pain relieving qualities that synthetic opiates have become one of the most commonly abused and most addictive prescription drugs in America. In fact, according to one article, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that more than 33 million Americans age 12 and older misuse extended-release and long-acting opioids—up from 29 million just five years earlier.

“Opioid drugs have benefit when used properly and are a necessary component of pain management for certain patients, but we know that they pose serious risks when used improperly—with serious negative consequences for individuals, families, and communities,” FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., said in the article.

In an effort to combat this growing problem of prescription drug misuse and addiction, a recent ruling by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency rescheduled a type of semi-synthetic opiates known as hydrocodone drugs from a Schedule III category to a more-restrictive Schedule II category. According to an article in Forbes, this will make the drugs more difficult to obtain, and in turn, less accessible to drug abusers.

In fact, the article states that in 2011 drug overdose was the number one cause of injury and death in the U.S., killing more people between ages 25 and 64 than motor vehicle accidents. Of the total 41,340 drug overdose deaths, 55% were due to pharmaceuticals. Of those where pharmaceuticals were implicated, 16,917 were due to opioid narcotics, meaning this class of drugs is responsible for three-quarters of pharmaceutical-related deaths in the U.S. In addition to these statistics, the article also states that in 2012, more than 135 million prescriptions were written for hydrocodone or hydrocodone-combination drug. This equals one prescription for every 2.3 men, women, and children in the U.S. that year.

While the idea to reschedule these drugs was first proposed 15 years ago, the ruling went into effect this October and added these drugs to other Schedule II substances including Percocet, Adderall and Ritalin. As stated in the same article, this move was meant to not only minimize the misuse of the drugs for recreational purposes, but also to ensure that patients after surgery or those with severe pain from threatening disease and illnesses like cancer, still have reasonable access to the amount of drug needed.

In addition to rescheduling these drugs, the FDA also approved a risk management plan for extended-release (ER) and long-acting (LA) opioid analgesics. This plan was designed to ensure that health care professionals are trained on how to properly prescribe these medicines and how to instruct their patients about using them safely.

In a statement released by the FDA, the risk management plan affects more than 20 ER/LA opioid companies and requires them to make educational training available for health care professionals on the safe prescribing of ER/LA opioid medications and carry out other new activities to reduce the risks of these drugs. However, while this new ruling is set to better control how synthetic opiates are used, new research is showing that they may be easier to make than ever before.

According to one article, researchers have discovered a new method that uses genetically tweaked baker’s yeast, and does not require fields of flowering opium poppies. The article states that it takes about 2,000 tons of poppy plants each year to produce the needed compounds for opium and the traditional system used is filled with inefficiencies and insecurities. Production of the drug generally suffers from susceptibility to climate and disease, requires a single annual growing season, the need for extraction by chemical processing, as well as social and political factors.

Instead of dealing with these issues, researchers involved in the study are saying that their recent discovery will eliminate the need for poppies altogether.  The article also notes that while the U.S. is far and away the largest consumer of opiates, it has no production capabilities of its own. This means moving the process into the lab could drastically change the way the U.S and other countries market and produce synthetic opiates.

While several factors will play into the future of synthetic opiates, Neogen’s Opiate ELISA test kit has confirmed cross-reactivity with all of the previously mentioned synthetic opiates. For more information on these test kits, click here and visit our website for additional information.



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