January 22, 2018
Central Mass. In Brief

Boston Scientific's new opioid alternative

The Spectra WaveWriter Spinal Cord Stimulator System combats pain without opioids.

Boston Scientific announced Jan. 11 it received regulatory approval for a new treatment for chronic pain without the use of opioids.

The product, the Spectra WaveWriter Spinal Cord Stimulator System is the first therapy product of its kind approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, the Marlborough medical device company said.

Boston Scientific said the system, which was developed for more than a decade, works by sending low electrical pulses to the spinal cord to interrupt pain signals. The therapy provides pain relief with a light tingling sensation, a process called paresthesia-based therapy, and sub-perception therapy, which doesn't carry a sensation.

An opioid epidemic

Boston Scientific did not say when the product might hit the market, or for what price. If successful, it could help alleviate the opioid epidemic, which has hit Massachusetts hard.

According to the state Department of Public Health, 2,190 people died from opioid-related overdoses in 2016 and at least 1,400 in 2017's first nine months.

Those numbers have risen each year since 2010, when there were 560, according to the DPH.

Between 2000 and 2016, Worcester County had 1,684 opioid-related overdose deaths, ranking the fourth highest among Massachusetts counties.

The over-prescribing of opioid medications such as OxyContin is one contributing factor.

In Boston Scientific's announcement, the company data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Controls found the amount of opioid prescriptions dispensed since 1999 has quadrupled while the amount of pain reported by Americans has not changed.

A push for opioid alternatives

The company's neuromodulation unit, based in California, could not be reached for comment, but in a statement included with the press release indicated the treatment was developed as a means to help curb the opioid epidemic.

"We are committed to investing in research and expanding treatment options for chronic pain by identifying new, non-opioid solutions for the millions of people suffering from this debilitating condition," said Maulik Nanavaty, the company's president and senior vice president of neuromodulation.

In a statement, the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Elissa Snook said the Baker Administration is working with private partners to address the epidemic, including forming a list of over 100 non-opioid medications with a lesser potential for abuse. The state's Drug Formulary Commission in 2016 approved and distributed the list and updated the list in August.

"These alternatives serve as an important tool aimed at preventing and treating addiction, and we are hopeful that the medical community will continue to see their benefit in combating the opioid crisis," Snook said.

The holy grail of pain management

From an addiction professional's point of view, alternative methods of pain treatment are tremendously important, said Kurt Isaacson, president and CEO of Worcester-based Spectrum Health Systems.

"If any company were able to create a medicine that was as effective as an opioid in reducing and eliminating pain and did so without it being addictive, that would be the holy grail of pain management," Isaacson said.

According to Isaacson, about 80 percent of people who use heroin and fentanyl start with prescription medications.

Drug cartels may be manufacturing similar medications illegally, but the ability to reduce the amount of prescribed medication would undoubtedly put a dent into the black market, Isaacson said.


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