A panel of health experts and advocates issued a recommendation this week for the Food and Drug Administration to approve a prescription nasal spray called Esketamine for the treatment of severe depression. This pharmaceutical development could significantly improve the lives of millions of Americans who suffer from intractable mental illness. The FDA will decide by early March whether or not to follow the panel’s recommendations.
Fourteen of seventeen panelists voted “yes” to the recommendation. “I believe esketamine has the potential to be a game-changer in the treatment of depression,” said one of the panel members in an interview with Bloomberg News. Another panelist decided to recommend the drug after considering the reality that the FDA doesn’t “take the patient voice into account enough.”
Depression is the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting over eight percent of the adult population. Approximately a third of patients who are treated with antidepressants and/or psychiatry do not experience significant improvement of their condition, a reality for many Americans who are confined to a diminished quality of life or are at constant risk of suicide.
Nearly Instant Relief From Depression
Esketamine is closely related to ketamine, a pharmaceutical tranquilizer used on humans as well as animals. As a street drug, ketamine is typically snorted to induce dissociative, recreational experiences; special K, it’s often called. Ketamine has also been used intravenously as an “off-label” treatment for treatment-resistant depression, to great effect.
Patients who undergo this treatment experience relief of their symptoms within hours, rather than having to wait for weeks to find out if conventional treatments are effective or not. Unlike antidepressants that modulate serotonin activity in the brain, ketamine acts directly upon glutamate that lift the symptoms of depression, which expedites relief. These rapid results are a godsend for patients at high-risk for suicide.
Used intravenously, ketamine’s relief is impermanent, but studies have found that the effects can last for up to a good two weeks; since ketamine is currently an “off-label” treatment — meaning it isn’t approved as a treatment for depression — infusions are not covered by insurance and can cost the patient several thousand dollars for each session.
If approved by the FDA, Esketamine, formulated by Johnson & Johnson, can be self-administered when needed and will be covered by most health insurance plans for patients whose depressive symptoms do not respond to the treatment options currently available on the market.