10 April 2011

Eric Strain talks about the buprenorphine film.

“Clinical Advances in the management of opiate dependence”

Friday 11th March & Saturday 12th March, 2011. Intercontinental Hotel, Sydney.

“Suboxone Sublingual Film - the US Experience”

Organised by the Reckitt Benckiser company.

While this conference had been billed initially as an update in opioid pharmacotherapies, there were rumours around that it was actually a product launch. Indeed, the first power-point slide stated: "Suboxone Sublingual Film - the US Experience". Professor Eric Strain’s presentation kicked off the first of two papers on the Friday afternoon after a delightful luncheon in the Café Opera provided by the company. I first heard about a mooted wafer version of buprenorphine numerous years ago and was surprised to find that it is now being approved in Australia.

Drug research guru Eric Strain from Johns Hopkins in Baltimore spoke to an audience of about 80 doctors from around Australia and overseas who were welcomed by meeting chair Dr Sue Ballantyne from Brisbane. Unlike most such national and international meetings, I understand that the entire event, travel, meals, transfers and accommodation were all funded by the manufacturer. Indeed, one had the feeling that this was closer to advertising a new product than a balanced educational session.

Dr Strain said that in response to reports of childhood poisonings, slow dissolution, diversion, (*see stop-press below) and other problems with Suboxone sub-lingual tablets, the film version was developed. There were three main pieces of evidence supporting the ‘film’ (or wafer) … initially there were trials in volunteers of the film with pharmacological data measuring absorption - these were part of the registration process but have not been published. We were shown graphs of detailed blood levels, where the films were substantially better absorbed than the buprenorphine tablets with which they were compared. From the graphs we were shown, the levels in the hours after administration appeared to be consistently 20 - 28% higher in subjects given the films versus tablets. Then we were told of some strangely contradictory clinical research work showing that patients who were transferred to the ‘film’ version noted less effect from the film formulation, despite the higher levels in the parallel studies on non-addict volunteers. This was just one of numerous worrying inconsistencies in the field revealed on the day.

We were told that the combination version with naloxone has been approved in the US for about six months and I recall Dr Strain saying that it has now taken a large market share (50% or more in some areas, if I heard correctly).

The speaker then described his own trial in some detail, including the rationale for performing it, something which is not made clear in the article itself. It examined withdrawal symptom indices during the initiation period in two groups taking (1) pure buprenorphine films and the (2) combination film. Performed in volunteers, it showed no difference, although of course this does not prove that they are equivalent. Dr Strain explained that the need for the trial was the [allegedly unfair and inappropriate] FDA requirement under the long-standing US treatment guidelines that patients should be stabilised on pure buprenorphine and only transferred to the combination product later if appropriate (and never in pregnant or potentially pregnant women). He told the audience that few American doctors actually followed this rule and that the Reckitt company was actively fighting to have the provision removed by the FDA. To my mind the use of pure buprenorphine in new patients is just logical, just as with insulin, warfarin, cortisone or lithium. There may be other commercial implications but these should be secondary to good therapeutics. His study in essence showed what he wanted: that there was no significant difference in induction withdrawals between pure and combination product, something one could have predicted.

[Comment by AB: I can see why the company might be pressing for this sort of research to be done, yet it would seem to be a low priority clinically when there are so many unknowns in the field. It seems odd that an august institution like Johns Hopkins Medical Center would follow commercial considerations to this extent. As just one example, to date there has still been no simple ‘head to head’ comparison of the combination product against pure buprenorphine despite strong but unsubstantiated contentions from some quarters that they are the same. One non-blinded trial showed that stable patients sought 50% higher doses when transferred to the combination product (Bell et al.). The work that Dr Strain discussed at this very conference indicates that absorption is also affected by other constituents. Nor has there been any research to my knowledge on the important matter of patient matching, except by ‘trial and error’ which is hardly scientific.

Equally, there has been no persuasive community evidence produced to suggest that the combination product is any less likely to be abused or diverted than the pure product. Its parallel (pure) product for analgesia was widely abused in New Zealand according to Robinson’s report in D&A Dependence in 1991 (ref below). After nation-wide replacement of pure buprenorphine with the combination version (but with three times as much naloxone per mg) the subjects attending an addiction clinic who used/abused buprenorphine had dropped from 81% to 64%. This is a modest reduction indeed, especially considering the claims by some that naloxone inclusion reduces injecting substantially. At the same time Robinson reported that pharmaceutical morphine use increased from 68% to 86% (and morphine is a much more dangerous drug when used without supervision). Buprenorphine was subsequently withdrawn altogether in New Zealand and not reintroduced for almost 20 years. End of ‘editorial’!]

Dr Strain told the audience that the new formulation came in individual packs which were peeled open to reveal their contents which was a square or rectangle of gel-film which was then inserted by the patient under their tongue. It was hard to remove manually as it quickly merged with the buccal mucosa. Dr Strain went into some detail about why pink/orange was chosen to match the Suboxone tablets (he was surprised to learn from a delegate sitting nearby that in Australia Suboxone is not orange but white). The company may not know that in Australia the drug is often supervised (the only places I know where this does NOT occur by regulation are France and the US). Thus pink/orange may be the most difficult to detect in a patient’s mouth. Also, rather than a peel-pack, an applicator or inserter might be more practical, especially the custodial setting where large numbers of patients need to be given doses in a short space of time. A bright and contrasting colour would seem more sensible … so more effective consultation before introduction might have served the manufacturer and consumers better. This may also explain the fact that the company does not market a formulation smaller than 2mg. Many patients on Subutex are taking reducing (or sometimes increasing) increments of 0.4mg. In my experience most patients who successfully withdraw from the drug nearly always do so from such doses which are well under 2mg daily. It is a mystery to me why the company do not make smaller sized buprenorphine SL tablets available more widely. A sceptical reader might think that the company is more interested in patients remaining on treatment indefinitely!

Apart from reports of diversion (which Dr Strain said “where there’s a will there’s a way” or words to that effect), another part of the development rationale included worrying reports of children and even babies involved in Suboxone toxicity incidents in American emergency rooms. While Dr Strain initially raised this issue, when he was asked for details by an audience member at the end he said that he did not know any more about such events. I note that he writes in his recently published article (page 1) “unintentional exposure to B tablets in children under the age of 6 years has increased from 53 reported exposures in 2004 to 907 in 2008; from 2000 to 2008 there were 1,786 child-hood exposures to B”. This would seem to have answered the delegate’s enquiry to a tee.

Strain claimed that the use of the new “films” would be likely to reduce such occurrences … and one can only hope that he is right. Apparently Suboxone is sold as loose tablets in a bottle in America whereas elsewhere it is supplied in sealed blister packs. Further, the colour and flavour of Suboxone in America could make them much more interesting to young children than Subutex without the orange colouring and citrus flavouring. The pure formulation is indeed disgusting and children who tasted it would be most likely to quickly spit it out. Some Australian observers may think that we are being sold an American solution to an American problem.

We were told that there were about 300,000 taking buprenorphine in America on any one day. The total taking methadone maintenance in America was probably about 200,000 - and by law these were all restricted to registered clinics giving ‘comprehensive treatment’ under close supervision.

In answer to another question Dr Strain said that officially the next step in someone who was doing well on 2mg reductions was to go to second daily. Although second daily dosing can work well for maintenance patients, since reducing-dose patients are usually in withdrawals by the end of 24 hours the prospect of second daily dosing is just inappropriate when there is an option of reduction to 1.6mg. Unofficially, however, he said that the logical thing to do was to cut the tablet or patch in half. He said that Reckitts had said that they could not guarantee that the drug was evenly distributed amongst the dry tablet or the patch … yet Dr Strain said that this was not really tenable when the company seemed happy that the rectangle, cut from a large sheet of spray-dried film, was the same strength as the same sized rectangle next to it. This is another inconsistency of the presentation where the obvious answer was to use 0.4mg tablets which are commonly available in Australia at least.

Dr Strain’s conflict statement was given and I presume is the same as in his recent publication: “Dr Strain is a consultant to and paid member of the Scientific Advisory Board of Reckitt Benckiser Pharmaceuticals. The terms of this arrangement are being managed by the Johns Hopkins University in accordance with its conflict of interest policies.”

Refs: Robinson GM, Dukes PD, Robinson BJ, Cooke RR, Mahoney GN. The misuse of buprenorphine and a buprenorphine-naloxone combination in Wellington, New Zealand. Drug Alcohol Dependence (1993) 33;1:81-6

Bell J, Byron G, Gibson A, Morris A. A pilot study of buprenorphine-naloxone combination tablet (Suboxone®) in treatment of opioid dependence. Drug Alcohol Rev 2004 23;3:311-318

* Stop press report sent from NDRI: “Eleven charged in "Operation Postage Stamp;" Drugs smuggled into Carbon County Prison under stamps”. http://www.attorneygeneral.gov/press.aspx?id=6035

Comments by Andrew Byrne .. Part II John Mendelson on prescription drug abuse summary.

9 April 2011

“Prescription Opiate Dependence” - John Mendelson

“Clinical Advances in the management of opiate dependence” (Part II)

Fri 11th March & Sat 12th March, 2011. Intercontinental Hotel, Sydney. Organised by the Reckitt Benckiser company.

[“Suboxone Sublingual Film - the US Experience” Eric Strain Part I]

“Prescription Opiate Dependence”

In the second plenary Professor John Mendelson from San Francisco spoke in detail about the epidemic of abuse of prescribed opioids in the USA. He pointed out the extent of this abuse, depending upon the definition, whereby a huge proportion of the population was involved in America. Most had originally obtained the drug from the family medicine cabinet. Vicodin was the most popular with 200 million prescriptions being issued in the past year. Methadone tablets for pain had increased 10 fold in just seven years. Oxycontin, we were reminded, was so abused now that it almost had the bad name of Heroin (which was also originally a trade name of the Bayer company). When the company recently reformulated their oxycodone product to be more long acting (it had previously been long acting in name only, he said) its popularity dropped proportionately. But we were reminded that the users who no longer chose Oxycontin may well have gone back to street heroin with its major complications of injecting, infections and overdose.

On no less than three occasions Mendelson mentioned the unpleasant and unpalatable possibility that Suboxone could end up being the next maligned drug like Xanax, Rohypnol, Normison capsules, LAAM, ‘Heroin’ and Oxycontin. Each of these has either been banned or else seriously restricted due to concerns, both real and constructed. On the positive side he pointed out that to date reports of misuse of buprenorphine was miniscule when compared with the other opiates (morphine, codeine, hydrocodone, oxycodone, methadone, etc). But like Dr Strain he implied that it was impossible to avoid diversion altogether.

Dr Mendelson stressed that a large proportion of respondents to a large survey had obtained the medication legally from medical sources and many of these were from one single doctor who was treating the patient (and sometimes supplying more than one end-user due to on-selling).

We were reminded that at least with prescribed drugs the patients ‘knew what they were getting’ and the risks were lower. He then did an infomercial for Big Pharma, saying how bad it was the drug companies made so much money out of all this when farmers in Afghanistan or Burma were being put out of business along with all those value-added industries all the way to the (American) consumers. While this was apparently not meant to be ‘tongue-in-cheek’, it did little to address the obvious problem of the chronic shortage of treatment facilities for those who need them most in both the US and Australia. It is not hard to estimate how many drug addicts could be treated for the earnings of the head of Reckitt Benckiser (reported to be thirty six million pounds in 2009 - see Wikipedia). This may place Professor Mendelson’s facetious comments into better perspective. I spoke to him collegially afterwards, pointing out that in our Medically Supervised Injecting Centre, the overdose rate for those injecting pharmaceuticals was a fraction of those using street drugs, nearing zero. Some Americans have trouble coming to terms with harm reduction measures like this (see my comments on subjects at risk below). On this subject, Dr Mendelson mentioned that he was in favour of the use of variable amounts of antagonists to deter and distract injectors as they would not know exactly what they were getting. This is rather contrary to our approach in Australia where the official policy is one of harm reduction.

Like a good lecturer, Mendelson went back to the origins by pointing out that there is nothing new in the world … drunkenness is mentioned in the first chapter of the Bible (Noah goes on a bender after landing the ark on Mount Ararat in Turkey - I am not making this up, you know!). Poppy seeds were found in graves in Mesopotamia where agricultural civilization had begun about seven millennia ago. The name for opium in Latin was Thebacium after Thebes where King Tut was buried and where the poppy was cultivated and its products used and revered. We were reminded that this was also the origin of the name for the alkaloid thebaine from which buprenorphine was originally derived by John Lewis in the 1960s in Bristol, working for Reckitt and Coleman in the quest for an opioid analgesic which did not cause constipation.

We then returned to Michelangelo’s impression of the drunkenness of Noah from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. We were then shown two views of a Renaissance architectural corner-piece showing Noah’s pot belly supposedly with veins representing the caput medusae of advanced liver failure. At this point I think he was using some licence with his audience – yet it was a nice cultural/historical foray in an action-packed presentation.

Dr Mendelson dealt with various means of overcoming the diversion problems including addition of antagonists, physical alterations to the product, etc but conceded that where there’s a will there’s a way regarding drug abuse (** see ‘operation postage stamp’ below).

He mentioned the early work of Mary Jeanne Kreek, when she was still a gastroenterologist, giving large doses of naloxone to patients orally to prevent constipation. One new formulation is claiming to do the same, yet another of the ‘me-too’ combination drugs with opiates. Of course mixing opiates with peanut butter will make them less interesting to addicts and one wonders what all this supposedly scientific approach is all about unless it is to do with patents and finance which mere doctors like me would know little about. I was reminded by Dr Robert Graham that when asked about this subject at the Suboxone tablet launch in 2006 the subject of ‘evergreening’ was carefully deflected and only confirmed in direct questioning after the session regarding some ‘exclusive marketing agreement’.

Professor Mendelson has a singular speaking style which leaves little room for oxygen. With a tilt at Cambridge syncopation, his rapid fire delivery is almost alarming as he shoots slide after slide in his compendium of topics to deal with. To start, he performed a spontaneous comedy session as the Apple computer serially froze, flat-lined and rebooted his power point presentation. He showed no hint of nerves despite the uncertainty of the moment.

We heard him initially in answer to the final question to Professor Strain’s talk, pointing out, amongst other things, that the only groups “at risk” for Suboxone injecting were (1) naïve users, (2) those who were in withdrawals and (3) those who were regular buprenorphine recipients. But he did not explain what he meant by “at risk”. I turned to my neighbours and said that they were only “at risk” of having a good time! (He agreed with this when I brought it up in the break).

He had insisted to a concerned questioner whose patients had asked for higher doses that the amount of naloxone absorbed was clinically insignificant and while it may look like there are substantial amounts for 4 to 8 hours after dosing on the graphs shown by Professor Strain, these were measured in picograms per 100ml and could not have had any clinical effect. Others may disagree. Comparative trial have still not been published.

We heard an anecdote about the taste of opiates, all of which are very bitter (hence a “taste” of heroin). However, we were informed that naloxone was the worst which Dr Mendelson once proved by passing it out at a high level meeting including Dr Alan Leishner who was so disgusted that he never gave out another research grant to the San Francisco team (!).

At this point the speaker introduced the famous pie chart of the costs of drug and alcohol abuse. But he pointed out that it had a difference as it was calculated from NEW hospital presentations compared with appendicitis (for instance) which may just occur and cause no more financial burdens beyond the immediate treatment period. On the other hand, most hospitals have about the same number of (new) drug related presentations as appendicitis … but because of the “frequent flyer” nature of dependency patients, the costs to society are vastly greater and were measured to nearly 400 billion dollars in the US alone. He rather seemed to simplify the input of prohibition, forgetting that without it the medical consequences would be very different and almost certainly a fraction of what they are currently. With just a modicum of harm reduction, HIV might be a rarity in his country as it is in Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong where addicts share needles about as often and the rest of us share tooth brushes (yuck!).

Dr Mendelson went to some trouble to detail the measures which could be taken to reduce the misuse of drugs. He pointed out that ‘fear and fright’ campaigns like the DARE program in America did not work. He said that the effect of education campaigns was unknown. [He failed to mention the work of McBride from Perth and the companion trial in Ireland showed significant benefits in drug/alcohol use from high school education modules.] He would appear to be naturally moved towards pharmaceutical approaches to reduce abuse yet he pointed out many of the failures of this in the past and that it is a constant battle. On the other hand he may have been referring to public media education (and ‘scare’) campaigns which are very hard to prove an effect one way or another, even though they may sound perfectly logical. What is ‘education’ to one may be advertising, indoctrination or lobbying to others.

Pain and addiction treatments, he contended, could be considered one continuum with a grey area in the middle which may be larger than some of us had previously thought. In such a model, features of dependency would invoke additional supervision while stability and progress would permit more liberties with treatment. He did not mention the originators of this approach, Gourlay and Heit (at least that is my understanding) nor their use of the principles of “universal precautions” as adapted for our field. In concluding and looking to the future, he then mentioned something rather worrying to my mind. With digital and phone technology and high sensitivity urine testing some interventions would be possible which could not have been dreamed about before. I hate to think what he was referring to but he did not allow time for any more questions and insisted that we all repair for the dinner arranged at Luna Park’s Crystal Palace dining room. [I repaired elsewhere for a whisky, end-of-week devotions and a sing-along.]

As if a post-script, he said that the Purdue Company (who make Oxycontin I believe) should be sent a huge thank-you card from the Reckitt company. This seemed to be yet more ‘in house’ commercial references which may have gone over the heads of some in the audience.

** “Eleven charged in "Operation Postage Stamp
;" Drugs smuggled into Carbon County Prison under stamps”.

Reckitt’s seminar’s third talk was on Saturday morning: “Hepatitis C and Opiate Dependence” by Prof Paul Haber of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney.

Paul Haber spoke about hepatitis C in the opioid pharmacotherapy setting. I arrived late and so cannot comment on the bulk of his presentation. Near to 10am Prof Haber was still discussing the need for regular assessments, treatment and follow-up for such patients. Despite being short of time, he craved the indulgence of the audience to say a few words about acute hepatitis C for which treatment could be very successful, preventing the onset of chronic hepatitis in a high proportion of cases. He also spoke about the seeming quandary regarding the costs of treatments into the future versus doing so at current prices, earlier in the course of the disease.

In question time I brought up the matter of Waizmann’s remarkable outcomes using some variations on the standard anti-viral regimen (ref #). By using double dose ribavirin once daily, supervised dosing and added citalopram ‘cover’ for all patients they reported nearly 100% sustained viral response in what sounds to be an average to difficult treatment group all taking maintenance therapies. The 49 subjects had a mix of genotypes and all but one of them achieved a sustained viral response.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

# Waizmann M, Ackermann G. High rates of sustained virological response in hepatitis C virus-infected injection drug users receiving directly observed therapy with peginterferon alpha-2a (40KD) (PEGASYS) and once-daily ribavirin. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment 2010 38:338-345

Fourth talk Reckitt’s seminar was on “Polysubstance dependence” by Dr Mark Montebello of the Langton Centre in Sydney.

Following Dr Haber we heard psychiatrist Mark Montebello who looks like a tenor but sounds like a bass-baritone. He spoke about his publicity photo for the conference, not having one to hand, and the need to take unusual poses to prevent those self-conscious looks.

Dr Montebello’s erudite speech was on the difficult subject of polysubstance abuse in which he included amphetamine type stimulants, inhalants, cocaine, benzodiazepines and cannabis. For some reason he called the latter ‘marijuana’ (perhaps for the benefit of the American visitors). We were told of the complex nature of categorising these patients, not to mention dealing with the problem clinically.

In question time several doctors announced that they had used various benzodiazepines in reduction and maintenance in opiate patients. Dr Montebello said that he favoured the use of clobazam which could be detected in the urine specifically from most other ‘street’ and prescribed sedatives. One well meaning doctor insisted that alprazolam (Xanax) was his drug of choice for such prescriptions while this raised many eyebrows in others.

Dr Strain said that he had forgotten when he had last prescribed alprazolam (Xanax) for a private psychiatry patient. Nevertheless, he had recently started prescribing ‘longer acting benzodiazepines, especially oxazepam’, to certain pharmacotherapy patients with anxiety symptoms, finding useful outcomes and little abuse.

I raised the issue of benzodiazepine maintenance for a select group who had tried every alternative, utilising more supervision for new and unstable subjects with more liberties for long-term stable folk. Our practice had used the “say no to drugs” philosophy for a decade with little to show for it as about 50% of our patients, like other reports, continued to use benzodiazepines on urine testing. Having started to prescribe diazepam under supervision, we noted anecdotally a high degree of stability with patients largely avoiding alcohol, cocaine, amphetamine and heroin/opiates. We use diazepam doses between 5 and 25mg daily under supervision along with the usual opioid pharmacotherapy, either (pure) buprenorphine or methadone. My final comment was that the use of diazepam in this way had about as much evidence as methadone did in 1990, before the seminal controlled studies of Dr Strain’s group at Johns Hopkins.

I was interested to find that the audience lacked the usual academic, research and ‘admin’ people from our field but mostly clinicians like myself. I met three doctors from Melbourne, several from Queensland and one from WA. There were apparently over 80 attending from all over Australia plus some doctors from Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan and South Africa. The Reckitt company budget must be substantial indeed.

Comments by Dr Andrew Byrne ..

8 April 2011

'MOTHER' study was really looking at babies, not mothers.

“Treatment for Pregnant Opioid Abuse Dependent Women”
Karol Kaltenbach, PhD
Clinical Associate Professor, Thomas Jefferson University, Jefferson Medical College

“Live at St Lukes”. Psychiatry Grand Rounds Wednesday 23rd March 2011.

This presentation was a well constructed description of the MOTHER study in a context somewhat removed from the science in my view.

Dr Kaltenbach began by saying that "Families I speak to are all real worried about babies withdrawing from drugs when they are born to mothers on methadone". She said that this was the main purpose of their study: to examine paediatric outcomes from pregnancies randomised to methadone or buprenorphine. We were reminded how little formal research has been done on opiate addicted mothers and their offspring even though tens of thousands of cases have been treated in the case of methadone which is considered the ‘gold standard’. While technically neither drug is approved in pregnancy, methadone treatment is considered a priority option for opioid dependent pregnant women in most health systems (and waiting lists are often dispensed with). Further, and reassuringly, to date several hundred babies have been reported born to mothers on buprenorphine. So the best ‘research’ has actually been field experience with this matter as well as scores of observational reports from Finnegan, Kandell and others. There have been no consistent problems reported from either group apart from the occurrence of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). It is my belief that such concerns over NAS can be addressed by reassurance that existing treatments are satisfactory but may delay baby’s discharge by a few days in some cases.

To her credit Dr Kaltenbach stressed at the outset that from their findings and others’, NAS is no more or less likely with either drug, about half the babies exhibiting symptoms in both groups. We were then given an overview of the trial, initial 1074 screened candidates from seven sites (US, Canada, Austria) , 175 randomised to methadone (89) or buprenorphine (86) on double blind, double dummy bases and with 58 buprenorphine and 73 methadone subjects completing the study. We were briefly shown data supporting no substantive differences between the groups in the usual relevant demographic details including drug use (those dependent on sedatives or alcohol had been excluded at initial assessment). Then we saw numerous tables of primary outcomes and secondary outcomes of the study (all fetal results, including mostly non-significant differences - eg. NAS score, birth weight, head circumference, gestational age, etc). It was emphasised by the speaker that three fetal characteristics were significantly better in the buprenorphine group. These were (1) total amount of morphine used (2) infant’s hospital stay and (3) duration of NAS (I noted that these are all derivatives of the same thing, viz: the severity of NAS as perceived by the treating doctors). My feeling is that it is an overstatement to say that these are three (separate) beneficial findings.

To my mind this trial, for the first time, proved that methadone is the drug of choice for opioid dependency in pregnancy … it also showed that the 58 mothers who finally had a baby on buprenorphine (almost 1000 original applicants didn't) had babies with slightly less protracted and/or severe withdrawal syndromes. And this is no surprise since buprenorphine is the weaker agonist drug and thus mothers with more severe dependencies may be more likely to have dropped out. While the authors provided some comparative evidence against this, on the other hand it would appear to be supported by their finding that ten times as many of the buprenorphine drop-outs stated that they were 'dissatisfied with the medication' (20 versus 2 in the methadone drop-outs).

Dr Kaltenbach did emphasise the health care budget and the issue of hospital stays for treatment of NAS. More important than concerns over NAS in my experience is that most expectant parents want to know: 'will our baby grow up healthy?' NAS can be managed relatively simply and its occurrence is not known to be associated with any negative long term outcomes (Finnegan, personal communication). Most important are the proven negative outcomes known for pregnancies of opioid dependent women who are denied adequate treatment. The costs of such complications to the health system, insurance companies, managed care organisations and society generally are substantial and would be vastly more than even the most comprehensive opioid dependency treatment program.

Despite the modest benefits to the offspring and disastrous consequences to the retention rates, we were told that the researchers believed that their data supported a conclusion that buprenorphine is now a ‘first line option’ in pregnancy. Their institution’s press office went further, stating that that buprenorphine is ‘superior to methadone’ in pregnancy, something which I believe is patently untrue and highly misleading.

If indeed this trial were intended to fairly determine outcomes of the respective drugs then the analysis should have included the patients who ‘failed to comply with the protocols’ and were discharged from treatment. In my clinical experience involuntary 'discharges' are exceedingly rare and in most cases would be involuntary ‘transfers’ so treatment would not be curtailed under any circumstances against the wishes of the patient.

My impression from this presentation was that one of the main goals of this study was to support buprenorphine treatment in the community in America where methadone is often not available. Indeed the very title MOTHER would seem to indicate that fetal outcomes were secondary rather than primary. This is intriguing since buprenorphine is already being used widely in pregnancy with excellent results in those women who can tolerate it. In fact the main conclusion from this study is that both drugs are needed for such women since neither has sufficiently high retention rates. As Dr Kaltenbach implied early in her talk, such research during pregnancy has serious ethical limitations (and my feeling is that without a safety net this trial was in the same category).

A doctor in England tried to do a trial of this nature in non-pregnant patients and over a two year period in their busy treatment clinic she reported that she could not recruit one single patient to randomise (Pinto). It is of concern that in the ‘MOTHER’ study that subjects stood to earn up to $5800 in incentives for compliance and so this may explain why they were able to recruit the women, many of whom had been in stable methadone treatment at the time of joining the study (although this detail was not given in the paper or presentation but in a parallel publication by the group). Thus approximately half such stable patients had their prescribed medication altered during the trial. Such an incentive for a pregnant woman in stable treatment seems to me to be unfair and unbalanced. That such women consented to altered treatment is little justification or consolation for the excess number who dropped out of treatment in my view. Dr Kaltenbach implied that the incentives were used as a ‘normal’ part of high quality treatment, ensuring that there would be no criticism that the women were denied state-of-the-art medical attention. I have never heard of incentives of this degree being used or recommended as “contingency” management (the ‘rewards’ for ‘good behaviour’ are usually modest compared to these sums and sometimes the equivalent of bubble gum or lottery tickets). It appears inescapable, however, that this trial could not have gone ahead without some such strong incentives.

Another detail was that daily attendance, including weekends is an onerous task, especially during pregnancy and is hardly consistent with high quality treatment claimed by the researchers. Yet this is just one more deficiency in a very troublesome trial protocol.

At her talk Dr Kaltenbach seemed uncertain of the Canadian site situation (which ended up providing no subjects at all for the trial, rather like Dr Pinto in England). Initially she said that the patients had the opportunity to get pharmacy pick-ups and daily attendance was no longer acceptable to them. Later in response to my comments she said that there were problems getting the Subutex, Suboxone and placebos to the hospital in Canada.

Dr Kaltenbach stated that the researchers originally wanted to recruit 350 candidates but since the numbers were only about half that they changed their alpha significance level to 0.03 … something I confess I find bizarre and unconvincing. In my view a difference in outcomes is either significant or it isn’t using traditional p values for group comparisons. Even just looking at the raw figures on drop-outs I believe most concerned parties would be able to decide which group they would liked their family member or patient to be in.

Dr Kaltenbach described the excess drop-outs in the buprenorphine group as ‘pretty dramatic’. Yet there is a claim in the paper that this difference is not significantly different! We then had some speculation about the reasons behind the poor buprenorphine results, including inadequate induction doses or inadequate withdrawals before starting (and I wonder if it is ethical to induce withdrawals in pregnant women at all). The reader should note that this trial used pure buprenorphine (Subutex) which is the agent used in nearly all the quality research while the combination drug (Suboxone) has still not been subjected to much if any comparative research to my reading.

While Dr Kaltenbach said that there was no reason to do so, it seemed traditional nowadays to put up a disclosure notice. She said that there were no declarations of interest as she did no consultancies for drug companies.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

6 April 2011

Letter from New York ...

Dear Colleagues,

I have had the privilege of spending time in Manhattan meeting up with colleagues, mostly of like minds, on issues of mutual interest.

At the same time, Americans are often also interested in the drug situation in Australia including related viral diseases, public health and the various studies being reported. Of course I was most interested in innovations here in America, including the buprenorphine film/wafer which has been mooted by the manufacturer for quite some years to overcome some of the problems with their SL tablets. See http://www.attorneygeneral.gov/press.aspx?id=6035 It is about ten dollars cheaper than the tablets according to a pharmacist I interviewed here which may account for its popularity currently. It also has some disadvantages it would appear.

Other highlights: ‘MOTHER’ study presentation: http://methadone-research.blogspot.com/2011/04/mother-study-was-really-looking-babies.html This issue became a front page New York Times item last Sunday (links on request).

I visited the Drug Policy Alliance where there is a team of dedicated workers intent on improving harm reduction services in the United States and beyond. They are always keen to hear of progress in Australia, needle programs, injecting facilities, etcetera. Several of their workers have been to the Beirut Harm Reduction Conference earlier this month where they met up with numerous Australians.

Across the road in West 36th Street I met up with Lynn Paltrow at the National Advocates for Pregnant Women. We heard of tragic cases of ignorance in certain states where women on methadone were charged with ‘supplying a drug to a minor’ and being separated from their children as a result. While we all appreciate the great advances undertaken in the United States but it is also clear that there is a Neanderthal side to their approach to drugs and drug use (see warnings on every bottle of alcohol sold in the US but note there is no alcohol percentage noted, even on Fosters!). Their system just seems rigid and less flexible than in other places like Australia.

Grand Rounds at Bellevue Hospital had an interesting presentation on the use of peer mentors for alcohol and drug affected patients. Dr Kathlene Tracy had done two studies, one in the Veterans Administration and one at NYU, looking at attendances for appointments before and after engagement of a mentor (who had been carefully chosen and vetted as being at least 6 months ‘clean’. This ‘buddy’ engagement improved compliance substantially at very modest cost and deserves closer examination, especially for severely disrupted patients with no homes, telephones or other means of support. The staff members at Bellevue were most obliging and invited me to lunch where we had on-going discussions led by Dr Marc Galanter who is their senior D&A specialist.

I give Journal Club at Rockefeller University (Kreek Labs) on Tuesday before returning home for Easter and my father’s birthday on Lord Howe Island (he is 84!).

There is a meeting with the newly formed users’ group here which is lobbying for better access to treatment for hepatitis C. At present the only ‘mandated’ intervention is an antibody test at entry to methadone treatment. For buprenorphine even that can be overlooked.
Best wishes from Manhattan.

Andrew Byrne ..