How a Winfield doctor helped get new opioid withdrawal drug approved
A suburban doctor was one of the most active researchers to study a drug that recently became the first non-opioid approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat the symptoms of opioid withdrawal.
Dr. Danesh Alam, medical director of behavioral health at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, contributed some of the patients to a study that led to the approval of a medication called LUCEMYRA.
Study parameters wouldn't allow him to say the exact number of patients he worked with during the research in 2013 and 2014, but he said the total was among the top three of all doctors involved in the nationwide trial involving 866 adults with opioid dependence.
Taken by mouth, the LUCEMYRA pill works to stop oversecretions from a certain brain receptor that becomes unstable when opioids are no longer in the system, causing flu-like symptoms, Alam said.
"One of the reasons people remain addicted to opioids," he said, "is a fear of withdrawal."
LUCEMYRA was determined by the study to alleviate stomach cramps, aches and pains, heart pounding, trouble sleeping, runny eyes, yawning, feeling cold or sick, and muscle spasms, twitching or tension -- all common with withdrawal. It is expected to be available to prescribe in about three months from a Kentucky-based company called US WorldMeds LLC.
"In our experience, the withdrawal symptoms were mitigated impressively with the drug. The patients were very comfortable," Alam said. "That's a first step to really setting up recovery."
Some of Alam's patients were treated with LUCEMYRA and others with a placebo during the double-blind study. Various doses were studied to help come up with the FDA recommendation for LUCEMYRA use.
The drug has been approved to be used for up to 14 days to help opioid-dependent patients adjust to the physical symptoms when opioids are no longer present.
In that way, Alam said it's novel because it is not an opioid itself. Other drugs commonly used for opioid withdrawal and recovery are opioids or partial opioids, such as methadone or buprenorphine. Some say this is replacement therapy, swapping one drug for another.
"We're in the midst of the opioid crisis. We need everything we can get to treat this population," Alam said. "This is a drug, which is a nonnarcotic drug, that helps people stop using opioids abruptly. Not many drugs are available and FDA-approved for this purpose."
Opioid overdoses killed 670 people across the suburbs and roughly 2,000 people in Illinois in 2017. Alam said the continuing high death totals prove a need for new treatments.
The makers of LUCEMYRA warn that it does not stop cravings for opioids and does not decrease overdose risk in people who return to taking opioids after a period of abstinence. Alam said the drug helps patients get over the initial hurdle of discontinuing opioid use before determining which long-term treatment strategy to pursue.
"This should change how we detox patients," he said.