Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer target painkiller revivals as FDA warms to abuse deterrents

The FDA has fueled a pharmaceutical arms race in the painkiller market with the agency's decision last month to bar the sale and production of generic OxyContin, which has become one of the most widely abused opioids among Americans. The U.S. agency's move signals a preference for proprietary versions of pain drugs with formulations that thwart abuse, The Wall Street Journal reports.

The pharma industry sees an opening to develop and advance abuse-deterring versions of painkillers, with Pfizer ($PFE), Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) as well as specialty outfits such as Purdue Pharma and Endo Pharmaceuticals ($ENDP) working in this area. On Friday, the FDA is scheduled to make a call on whether Endo can promote the anti-abuse features of its Opana painkiller, the WSJ reported. And Pfizer, hungry to capitalize on investments in the pain market such as its $3.6 billion buyout of King Pharma in 2011, aims to bring Remoxy and Embeda to market with remedies that trip up addicts.

"Over time, it should be a scientific race across the whole pharmaceutical industry to create a market where all opioids have abuse-deterrent properties," said Gary Stiles, Purdue's senior vice president of R&D, as quoted by the WSJ. Purdue benefitted from the FDA's decision against generic OxyContin last month because the company markets a version of the drug that makes it difficult to abuse.

While the ban on OxyContin obviously doesn't cover all oft-abused painkillers, regulators have some incentives to take more firm stances against generics that could fall in the hands of addicts. Regulators and health officials are grappling with a rising threat from prescription opioids, which killed more Americans than illicit drugs such as cocaine and heroin in 2011, according to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Due in part to the FDA's decision, prescription painkiller sales are set to increase by 15% and hit $8.4 billion by 2017, according to information from Cowen & Co. cited by the WSJ. Purdue, for instance, wants to apply its anti-abuse tech to other popular painkillers such as morphine and hydrocodone.

- read the WSJ's article (sub. req.)