Drug maker invests millions to make painkillers safer


After facing months of controversy, the company that makes the prescription painkiller, Zohydro, is taking the lead to address concerns from parents and drug treatment groups that the product could be misused.

James Kennedy is one of those critics. He still tends to a memorial on a roadside in Southern California, at the spot where his son died after overdosing of prescription pain killers.

"Every two days, somebody in Orange County is dying from a prescription drug overdose," said Kennedy.

April Rovero also lost her son Joey to a drug overdose four years ago. The former athlete from San Ramon ingested a cocktail of painkillers that included Oxycodon.

"It is an opiate, It is actually the generic form of Oxycontin," said Rovero.

Both parents say they were alarmed when they learned the FDA had recently approved a new prescription painkiller, called Zohydro. It contains powerful levels of a semi-synthetic opioid called hydrocodone.

Although designed to be time released, critics say the painkiller is open to abuse, because it lacks a protective coating, or other abuse deterrents in its formulation. Snorting or injecting a crushed tablet they say, could release a dangerous rush of the opioid.

"Because it's so easy to abuse, it's high potency. So, in one pill they get quite a bit of their product," said Dr. James Keany, an emergency medicine specialist in Southern California.

A number of groups led by concerned parents, lawmakers and addiction specialists launched a nationwide effort to pressure the FDA into reversing its decision and keep Zohydro off the market. The FDA has defended its decision and Zohydro is still available.

"What we're feeling in the prevention environment that it has the potential to be the next Oxycontin," says Rovero.

But after months of pressure, the drug's manufacturer has just taken a major step that could address some concerns about its safety. Zogenix, which has a campus in Emeryville, announced that it, will sell a division dedicated to migraine treatment and focus on developing a version of Zohydro with abuse deterrents.

In a statement to ABC7 News, the company said, "Zogenix is investing tens of millions of dollars to develop an abuse deterrent technology that is more effective than those currently on the market." the company also says it's working to introduce the next generation of the drug: "as soon as possible."

For some activists like April Rovero an abuse deterrent form of the drug would be a beginning.

"It's extremely important for all of these opioids out there to have that abuse deterrents. It's not a cure all; you can still take more pills and still get high if that's what you are looking to do. But it really takes away the opportunity to crush and snort," she said.

And like April Rovero, the Kennedy's say they'll continue the nationwide fight to combat the deadly misuse of prescription drugs.

"So, whatever I can do, in the name of my beautiful son Joseph, I'm going to do, to help save lives," says Kennedy.

Zogenix has also taken several interim steps, including supplying patients with locking containers for the pills without cost.

Written and produced by Tim Didion
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