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Can Pacira Pharmaceuticals' Exparel Reduce Opioid Abuse?

Pacira Pharmaceuticals' (NASDAQ: PCRX) Exparel provides pain relief after surgery, and that's reducing the need to prescribe opiates. The company's studying Exparel's use in multiple indications, and that could make it a bigger alternative to oral opioids. Can its use help address the opioid crisis?

In this clip from The Motley Fool's Industry Focus: Healthcare podcast, analyst Kristine Harjes is joined by Todd Campbell to discuss Exparel and its future.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on April 12, 2017.

Kristine Harjes: We are going to dive into a handful of companies that are working on developing alternative types of pain medication. The first one is one that we covered in our March episode of Industry Focus: Healthcare on the show that we did about year-to-date best performers. This one is Pacira Pharmaceuticals, which, at the time, was up 56% just from Jan. 1, and now is up "only" 43%.

Todd Campbell: Yeah. It's been a very good year for this company, and part of that is because it markets a drug that could, theoretically, reduce the likelihood of someone falling into that trap of becoming dependent on opiates. Kristine, how many prescriptions are being written per day for opiates? 

Harjes: Six hundred fifty thousand opioid prescriptions are dispensed every single day, according to the HHS.

Campbell: OK. Let's think about that for a second, let's give our listeners a moment to digest that, and come up with a guess in their minds how much in dollars, what kind of a market size, do they think that be?

Harjes: Hint, hint: It's big. It's really big.

Campbell: Yeah, $12.6 billion are being spent on opiate medication every year. While that's a frightening statistic for many different reasons, I think it can't be lost that, when you have a market that's that big, and you have a potential to disrupt it by developing something that's far less addictive, you're going to have a lot of drugmakers that are going to step up and try to come up with a solution. Pacira is one of those companies. It has a drug, Exparel, that's been on the market for a few years now. It's a local anesthetic that is inserted at the time of a surgical procedure that has been proven to not only reduce pain in patients, but to reduce the likelihood of them needing opiates in their post-operative recovery period.

Harjes: Right. So, what makes this a novel drug is, it's delivered with this Depofoam applicator that is supposed to extend the release time so that the numbing medicine works for a longer amount of time, so hopefully you don't wind up on an opioid afterward.

Campbell: Right. Bupivacaine, which I'm sure I'm butchering, is the analgesic, and normally that wears off within eight hours. But if you add Depofoam to it, you get significantly longer pain relief. In trials, the trials that justified the FDA approving this drug, you found that this drug significantly extended the period of time for a person to say, "I am in so much pain that I need an opiate."

Harjes: Exactly. This company now has a partnership with Johnson & Johnson. Hopefully that will help boost sales of the drug even further. So far, it's doing very well. It had 11% sales growth between 2015 and 2016. They're forecasting another 9% at least, and that was at the low end for 2017. This company has a host of other things they're doing, but because we want to stay fairly focused, we will leave them for another episode. But keep your eye out for more data. They have phase 3 data coming out in some nerve-block studies; that should be later this year. All in all, lots going on with the company as a whole, and also for this specific drug.

Campbell: Yeah, because, again, Exparel is only being used in certain patients going under certain procedures. The idea is, if we can expand that out to a larger addressable patient population, great, and those studies will read out data over the course of next year or so, and hopefully show similar results to what they saw in their first registration ready trial.

Kristine Harjes owns shares of Johnson & Johnson. Todd Campbell has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Johnson & Johnson. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.