An Indestructible Pill Promises to Solve America's Opioid Epidemic

January 14th 2016

Kyle Jaeger

The U.S. is in the midst of an opioid epidemic — that much is no longer in question. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that rates of opioid addiction and overdose are on the rise. 44 people die from painkiller overdoses each day. What remains in question is the solution, and one drug company believes that it has the answer.

RELATED: This Health Care Issue Is Contributing to the U.S. Opioid Epidemic

Using specialized technology, researchers developed a pill that can't be crushed or liquefied. It can even withstand the force of a hammer. The "indestructible pill" promises to prevent abuse of dangerous and addictive prescription painkillers.

The drug company Egalet Corporation applied to get its extended-release morphine pill approved by the FDA in December, and it hopes to get approval for an indestructible version of oxycodone (a particularly potent painkiller) approved shortly thereafter.

How would an indestructible pill affect opioid abuse?

A lot of the time, people who become addicted to prescription painkillers transition from taking the pills orally in large quantities to snorting or injecting the drug. They achieve this by crushing the pills into fine powders, or melting the substance down into an liquid that can be administered through a syringe.

By making it virtually impossible to crush the morphine tablets, Egalet thinks its patented technology could serve a greater purpose in the future of healthcare in the U.S. What's more, the way the pills are chemically manufactured makes it so that turn into a pungent goop that can't fit in a syringe when melted.

"Given the need for treatment options for the millions of individuals living with chronic pain, combined with the importance of providing formulations that deter opioid abuse because of the prescription abuse epidemic here in the United States, the NDA submission of ARYMO ER represents an important milestone and is the first NDA from our proprietary Guardian Technology program," Bob Radie, president and CEO of Egalet, said in a press release. "We look forward to working with the FDA to bring to market ARYMO ER for people living with chronic pain."

How does Egalet make the indestructible pill?

In order to make a pill so strong that not even a hammer or blender can break it down, Egalet adopted injection molding technology, the same process usually associated with plastics. It's the same technology used to make things like LEGOs, car bumpers, and plastic bottles, Radie told Business Insider. And while the thought of ingesting plastics might seem unsettling, he insists that the company uses edible polymers that already exist in many vitamins and pills. It's just a lot stronger.

"Guardian Technology results in tablets that are extremely hard, very difficult to chew, resistant to particle size reduction, and inhibit/block attempts at chemical extraction of the active pharmaceutical ingredient," the company described in a press release. "These features are important to address the risk of accidental misuse (e.g., chewing) in patients with chronic pain, as well as intentional abuse using more rigorous methods of manipulation."

What steps are other drug companies taking to prevent painkiller abuse?

Confronted with an epidemic of abuse, companies that produce prescription painkillers are under pressure to come up with ways to prevent the pills from being manipulated by users. The company that makes Oxycotin, the brand name for a common form of oxycodone, has also developed an indestructible pill that touts similar claims of abuse-deterant technology.

RELATED: The Connection Between Prescription Painkillers and America's Heroin Problem

Some companies have tried adding irritants to their pills so that if you try to snort them, you experience an unpleasant burning sensation in your nose. There are also painkillers that have been chemically engineered to remove the euphoric effect — the high — you get from taking opiates.

"Others still are taking Egalet’s approach of keeping the pill from being broken down at all," Business Insider reported. "The way this indestructible pill model works, Radie said, could expand it to other areas as well, such as making sure patients take the full dose of their medication rather than half to stretch out the prescription."

Of course, while taking preventative measures to reduce painkiller abuse is a good thing, it doesn't serve as a comprehensive solution to the U.S. opiate epidemic. Public health officials stress the importance of understanding how addiction factors into the epidemic — and the limitations of drug technology in preventing abuse.