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FDA OKs drug for ‘pain beyond morphine’

The federal government approved a pain drug Tuesday that is an option for patients who have “pain beyond morphine.”

The drug, Prialt, is the first in a new class of drugs that block the nerve channels that transmit pain signals. It was modeled after a peptide discovered in snails that paralyze their prey, said Dr. Lars Ekman, president of research and development at Elan Pharmaceuticals, headquartered in Ireland.

Prialt was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for patients in severe and chronic pain who are not getting effective relief from morphine or other drugs being infused though pumps implanted under the skin, which deliver drugs directly into the fluid surrounding the spinal cord. Ekman said about 50,000 Americans now have these pumps.

During clinical trials, the drug produced delirium, memory loss and confusion. A third trial of a lower dose lessened the side effects.

But some pain specialists expressed caution. Dr. Kathleen Foley, head of the pain center at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, said the drug is “smart science and it works. But there are tons of side effects, and there will be a lot of work to figure out who can benefit.”

Mary Pat Aardrup, executive director of the National Pain Foundation in Englewood, Colo., welcomed the news. “Because it’s invisible, pain isn’t always taken seriously,” she said. “But it affects every corner of a person’s life.”