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Concept: Morphine


The U.S. opioid epidemic is continuing, and drug overdose deaths nearly tripled during 1999-2014. Among 47,055 drug overdose deaths that occurred in 2014 in the United States, 28,647 (60.9%) involved an opioid (1). Illicit opioids are contributing to the increase in opioid overdose deaths (2,3). In an effort to target prevention strategies to address the rapidly changing epidemic, CDC examined overall drug overdose death rates during 2010-2015 and opioid overdose death rates during 2014-2015 by subcategories (natural/semisynthetic opioids, methadone, heroin, and synthetic opioids other than methadone).* Rates were stratified by demographics, region, and by 28 states with high quality reporting on death certificates of specific drugs involved in overdose deaths. During 2015, drug overdoses accounted for 52,404 U.S. deaths, including 33,091 (63.1%) that involved an opioid. There has been progress in preventing methadone deaths, and death rates declined by 9.1%. However, rates of deaths involving other opioids, specifically heroin and synthetic opioids other than methadone (likely driven primarily by illicitly manufactured fentanyl) (2,3), increased sharply overall and across many states. A multifaceted, collaborative public health and law enforcement approach is urgently needed. Response efforts include implementing the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain (4), improving access to and use of prescription drug monitoring programs, enhancing naloxone distribution and other harm reduction approaches, increasing opioid use disorder treatment capacity, improving linkage into treatment, and supporting law enforcement strategies to reduce the illicit opioid supply.

Concepts: United States, Drugs, Opioid, Morphine, Heroin, Naloxone, Drug overdose, Opioid overdose


Because long-term opioid use often begins with treatment of acute pain (1), in March 2016, the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain included recommendations for the duration of opioid therapy for acute pain and the type of opioid to select when therapy is initiated (2). However, data quantifying the transition from acute to chronic opioid use are lacking. Patient records from the IMS Lifelink+ database were analyzed to characterize the first episode of opioid use among commercially insured, opioid-naïve, cancer-free adults and quantify the increase in probability of long-term use of opioids with each additional day supplied, day of therapy, or incremental increase in cumulative dose. The largest increments in probability of continued use were observed after the fifth and thirty-first days on therapy; the second prescription; 700 morphine milligram equivalents cumulative dose; and first prescriptions with 10- and 30-day supplies. By providing quantitative evidence on risk for long-term use based on initial prescribing characteristics, these findings might inform opioid prescribing practices.

Concepts: Opioid, Pain, Morphine, Psychoactive drug, Medical prescription, Chronic pain, Recreational drug use, Hydromorphone


In March and October 2015, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and CDC, respectively, issued nationwide alerts identifying illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF) as a threat to public health and safety (1,2). IMF is unlawfully produced fentanyl, obtained through illicit drug markets, includes fentanyl analogs, and is commonly mixed with or sold as heroin (1,3,4). Starting in 2013, the production and distribution of IMF increased to unprecedented levels, fueled by increases in the global supply, processing, and distribution of fentanyl and fentanyl-precursor chemicals by criminal organizations (3). Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 50-100 times more potent than morphine (2).* Multiple states have reported increases in fentanyl-involved overdose (poisoning) deaths (fentanyl deaths) (2). This report examined the number of drug products obtained by law enforcement that tested positive for fentanyl (fentanyl submissions) and synthetic opioid-involved deaths other than methadone (synthetic opioid deaths), which include fentanyl deaths and deaths involving other synthetic opioids (e.g., tramadol). Fentanyl deaths are not reported separately in national data. Analyses also were conducted on data from 27 states(†) with consistent death certificate reporting of the drugs involved in overdoses. Nationally, the number of fentanyl submissions and synthetic opioid deaths increased by 426% and 79%, respectively, during 2013-2014; among the 27 analyzed states, fentanyl submission increases were strongly correlated with increases in synthetic opioid deaths. Changes in fentanyl submissions and synthetic opioid deaths were not correlated with changes in fentanyl prescribing rates, and increases in fentanyl submissions and synthetic opioid deaths were primarily concentrated in eight states (high-burden states). Reports from six of the eight high-burden states indicated that fentanyl-involved overdose deaths were primarily driving increases in synthetic opioid deaths. Increases in synthetic opioid deaths among high-burden states disproportionately involved persons aged 15-44 years and males, a pattern consistent with previously documented IMF-involved deaths (5). These findings, combined with the approximate doubling in fentanyl submissions during 2014-2015 (from 5,343 to 13,882) (6), underscore the urgent need for a collaborative public health and law enforcement response.

Concepts: Drug, Opioid, Morphine, Drug addiction, Heroin, Naloxone, Opioids, Drug Enforcement Administration


A large fraction of heroin users now report that they formerly used prescription opioids nonmedically, a finding that has led to restrictions on opioid prescribing. Nevertheless, only a small fraction of prescription-opioid users move on to heroin use.

Concepts: Opioid, Morphine, Heroin


Background New psychoactive substances constitute a growing and dynamic class of abused drugs in the United States. On July 12, 2016, a synthetic cannabinoid caused mass intoxication of 33 persons in one New York City neighborhood, in an event described in the popular press as a “zombie” outbreak because of the appearance of the intoxicated persons. Methods We obtained and tested serum, whole blood, and urine samples from 8 patients among the 18 who were transported to local hospitals; we also tested a sample of the herbal “incense” product “AK-47 24 Karat Gold,” which was implicated in the outbreak. Samples were analyzed by means of liquid chromatography-quadrupole time-of-flight mass spectrometry. Results The synthetic cannabinoid methyl 2-(1-(4-fluorobenzyl)-1H-indazole-3-carboxamido)-3-methylbutanoate (AMB-FUBINACA, also known as MMB-FUBINACA or FUB-AMB) was identified in AK-47 24 Karat Gold at a mean (±SD) concentration of 16.0±3.9 mg per gram. The de-esterified acid metabolite was found in the serum or whole blood of all eight patients, with concentrations ranging from 77 to 636 ng per milliliter. Conclusions The potency of the synthetic cannabinoid identified in these analyses is consistent with strong depressant effects that account for the “zombielike” behavior reported in this mass intoxication. AMB-FUBINACA is an example of the emerging class of “ultrapotent” synthetic cannabinoids and poses a public health concern. Collaboration among clinical laboratory staff, health professionals, and law enforcement agencies facilitated the timely identification of the compound and allowed health authorities to take appropriate action.

Concepts: United States, Gold, Morphine, New York City, Cannabinoid, Recreational drug use, Law enforcement agency, HU-210


Background Current pharmacologic treatment of the neonatal abstinence syndrome with morphine is associated with a lengthy duration of therapy and hospitalization. Buprenorphine may be more effective than morphine for this indication. Methods In this single-site, double-blind, double-dummy clinical trial, we randomly assigned 63 term infants (≥37 weeks of gestation) who had been exposed to opioids in utero and who had signs of the neonatal abstinence syndrome to receive either sublingual buprenorphine or oral morphine. Infants with symptoms that were not controlled with the maximum dose of opioid were treated with adjunctive phenobarbital. The primary end point was the duration of treatment for symptoms of neonatal opioid withdrawal. Secondary clinical end points were the length of hospital stay, the percentage of infants who required supplemental treatment with phenobarbital, and safety. Results The median duration of treatment was significantly shorter with buprenorphine than with morphine (15 days vs. 28 days), as was the median length of hospital stay (21 days vs. 33 days) (P<0.001 for both comparisons). Adjunctive phenobarbital was administered in 5 of 33 infants (15%) in the buprenorphine group and in 7 of 30 infants (23%) in the morphine group (P=0.36). Rates of adverse events were similar in the two groups. Conclusions Among infants with the neonatal abstinence syndrome, treatment with sublingual buprenorphine resulted in a shorter duration of treatment and shorter length of hospital stay than treatment with oral morphine, with similar rates of adverse events. (Funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse; BBORN number, NCT01452789 .).

Concepts: Clinical trial, Opioid, Morphine, Drug addiction, Addiction, Heroin, Naloxone, Benzodiazepine


Preliminary estimates of U.S. drug overdose deaths exceeded 60,000 in 2016 and were partially driven by a fivefold increase in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids (excluding methadone), from 3,105 in 2013 to approximately 20,000 in 2016 (1,2). Illicitly manufactured fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50-100 times more potent than morphine, is primarily responsible for this rapid increase (3,4). In addition, fentanyl analogs such as acetylfentanyl, furanylfentanyl, and carfentanil are being detected increasingly in overdose deaths (5,6) and the illicit opioid drug supply (7). Carfentanil is estimated to be 10,000 times more potent than morphine (8). Estimates of the potency of acetylfentanyl and furanylfentanyl vary but suggest that they are less potent than fentanyl (9). Estimates of relative potency have some uncertainty because illicit fentanyl analog potency has not been evaluated in humans. This report describes opioid overdose deaths during July-December 2016 that tested positive for fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, or U-47700, an illicit synthetic opioid, in 10 states participating in CDC’s Enhanced State Opioid Overdose Surveillance (ESOOS) program.* Fentanyl analogs are similar in chemical structure to fentanyl but not routinely detected because specialized toxicology testing is required. Fentanyl was detected in at least half of opioid overdose deaths in seven of 10 states, and 57% of fentanyl-involved deaths also tested positive for other illicit drugs, such as heroin. Fentanyl analogs were present in >10% of opioid overdose deaths in four states, with carfentanil, furanylfentanyl, and acetylfentanyl identified most frequently. Expanded surveillance for opioid overdoses, including testing for fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, assists in tracking the rapidly changing illicit opioid market and informing innovative interventions designed to reduce opioid overdose deaths.

Concepts: Drug, Opioid, Morphine, Drug addiction, Heroin, Naloxone, Opioids, Drug overdose


BACKGROUND: Pre-eclampsia/eclampsia is one of the most common causes of maternal and perinatal morbidity and mortality in low and middle income countries. Magnesium sulfate is the drug of choice for prevention of seizures as part of comprehensive management of the disease. Despite the compelling evidence for the effectiveness of magnesium sulfate, concern has been expressed about its safety and potential for toxicity, particularly among providers in low- and middle-income countries. The purpose of this review was to determine whether the literature published in these global settings supports the concerns about the safety of use of magnesium sulfate. METHODS: An integrative review of the literature was conducted to document the known incidences of severe adverse reactions to magnesium sulphate, and specific outcomes of interest related to its use. All types of prospective clinical studies were included if magnesium sulfate was used to manage pre-eclampsia or eclampsia, the study was conducted in a low- or middle-income country, and the study included the recording of the incidence of any adverse side effect resulting from magnesium sulfate use. RESULTS: A total of 24 studies that compared a magnesium sulfate regimen against other drug regimens and examined side effects among 34 subject groups were included. The overall rate of absent patellar reflex among all 9556 aggregated women was 1.6%, with a range of 0-57%. The overall rate of respiratory depression in 25 subject groups in which this outcome was reported was 1.3%, with a range of 0–8.2%. Delay in repeat administration of magnesium sulfate occurred in 3.6% of cases, with a range of 0-65%. Calcium gluconate was administered at an overall rate of less than 0.2%. There was only one maternal death that was attributed by the study authors to the use of magnesium sulfate among the 9556 women in the 24 studies. CONCLUSION: Concerns about safety and toxicity from the use of magnesium sulfate should be mitigated by findings from this integrative review, which indicates a low incidence of the most severe side effects, documented in studies that used a wide variety of standard and modified drug regimens. Adverse effects of concern to providers occur infrequently, and when they occurred, a delay of repeat administration was generally sufficient to mitigate the effect. Early screening and diagnosis of the disease, appropriate treatment with proven drugs, and reasonable vigilance for women under treatment should be adopted as global policy and practice.

Concepts: Pharmacology, Effectiveness, Magnesium sulfate, Sulfur, Morphine, Adverse effect, Salt, Iatrogenesis


To aid public health policymaking, we studied the cost-effectiveness of buprenorphine, naltrexone, and placebo interventions for heroin dependence in Malaysia.

Concepts: Health economics, Morphine, Heroin, Naloxone, Drug rehabilitation


This issue of Molecular Pharmacology is dedicated to Dr. Avram Goldstein, the journal’s founding Editor and one of the leaders in the development of modern pharmacology. This chapter focuses on his contributions to the discovery of the dynorphins and evidence that members of this family of opioid peptides are endogenous agonists for the kappa opioid receptor. In his original publication describing the purification and sequencing of dynorphin A, Avram described this peptide as ‘extraordinarily potent’ (‘dyn’ from the Greek, dynamis = power and ‘-orphin’ for endogenous morphine peptide). The name originally referred to its high affinity and great potency in the bioassay that was used to follow its activity during purification, but the name has come to have a second meaning: Studies of its physiological function in brain continue to provide powerful insights to the molecular mechanisms controlling the mood disorders and drug addiction. In the 30 years since its discovery, we have learned that the dynorphin peptides are released in brain during stress exposure. Once released, they activate kappa opioid receptors distributed throughout the brain and spinal cord where they trigger cellular responses resulting in different stress responses: analgesia, dysphoria-like behaviors, anxiety-like responses, and increased addiction behaviors in experimental animals. Avram predicted that a detailed molecular analysis of opiate drug actions would someday lead to better treatments for drug addiction, and he would be gratified to know that subsequent studies enabled by his discovery of the dynorphins resulted in insights that hold great promise for new treatments for addiction and depressive disorders.

Concepts: Opioid, Morphine, Opioid receptor, Heroin, Buprenorphine, Endorphin, Codeine, Kappa Opioid receptor