A decades-old anesthetic made notorious as a party drug in the 1980s is resurfacing as a potential “game-changing” treatment for severe depression, patients and psychiatrists say, but they remain wary about potential long-term problems.
The Food and Drug Administration earlier this month approved the use of Spravato for patients with depression who have not benefited from other currently available medications. Spravato, the brand name given to the drug esketamine, is a molecule derived from ketamine — known as Special K on the club scene.
Ketamine has been shown in some studies to be useful for treating a wide variety of neurological disorders including depression. Regular, longtime use of it isn’t well understood, psychiatrists say, but the need for a new drug to treat depression is so great that the FDA put Spravato on a fast-track course for approval.
The drug likely will be commercially available in a few weeks, and patients already are requesting it. Restrictions around its use, though — the drug must be administered in a doctor’s office by providers who are certified with the company making it — mean it may be months before it’s widely available, and longer than that before insurers start paying for it.
“I don’t think we know at this point how effective it’s going to be,” said Dr. Craig Nelson, a psychiatrist at the UCSF Depression Center. “There have been a number of studies of ketamine, sometimes showing effects in people who were resistant to other drugs. If we can treat a different group of people, it would be a great advantage.”
Ketamine was developed in the 1960s as a surgical anesthetic for people and animals. The drug can cause hallucinations and a feeling of “dissociation” or unreality, and in the 1980s it took off as a party drug among people seeking those effects. It remained a common anesthetic, though, and in the early 2000s doctors began to notice a connection between ketamine and relief from symptoms of depression and other mood disorders.
Spravato is delivered by nasal spray, which patients give themselves in a doctor’s office. Patients must be monitored while they get the drug and for two hours after to make sure they don’t suffer immediate complications. At the start, patients will get the nasal spray twice a week for four weeks, then taper to regular boosters every few weeks for an indefinite period of time.
Studies of ketamine — and specifically of Spravato — have produced encouraging but inconsistent results. Psychiatrists say that, like most other antidepressants, the drug probably won’t help everyone with difficult-to-treat depression. But there likely will be a subset of patients who get substantial benefits, and that alone may make it an incredible new tool.
About 16 million Americans experience depression every year, and roughly a quarter of them get no benefit from antidepressants on the market. Thought scientists haven’t determined exactly how ketamine works on the brains of people with depression or other mood disorders, it appears to take a different path of attack than any drug already available. That means that people who don’t respond to other antidepressants may find this one works for them.
But a concern among some psychiatrists is that studies have suggested that ketamine may affect the same receptors in the brain that respond to opioids. Ketamine and its derivations may then put patients at risk of addiction — but research so far hasn’t explored that kind of long-term effect.
“There might be some potential problems if you used it too aggressively,” said Dr. Alan Schatzberg, director of the Stanford Mood Disorders Center, who led the research that identified a connection with opioid receptors. “The issue is not so much the short-term use, it’s the repetitive use, and the use over time, as to whether there are going to be untoward consequences.
“It would be hard for me to recommend the use of this drug for chronically depressed people without knowing what the endgame is here,” he added.
Dr. Carolyn Rodriguez, a Stanford psychiatrist who was part of the studies of ketamine and opioid receptors, said she shares Schatzberg’s concerns. But she’s been studying the use of ketamine to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder, and for some patients the results have been so remarkable that the benefits may exceed the risks.
“When I gave ketamine to my first patient, I nearly fell off my chair. Somebody said it was like a vacation from their OCD, and I was just, ‘Wow, this is really possible,’” Rodriguez said. “I want to make sure patients have their eyes wide open. I hope (the FDA approval) spurs more research, so we can really inform consumers.”
Though the new nasal spray is the first formal FDA approval of a ketamine-derived drug, psychiatrists have been using the generic anesthetic for years to study its effect on depression and other mood disorders.
In recent years, clinics have opened around the country offering intravenous infusions of ketamine to people with hard-to-treat depression and other problems. These treatments aren’t specifically FDA-approved but are allowed as off-label use of ketamine. The clinics have faced skepticism from some traditional psychiatrists, but there’s a growing ream of anecdotal evidence that the ketamine IVs work — for some people.
Aptos resident Mary, who suffers from depression and other mood disorders and asked that her last name not be used to protect her privacy, said the already available antidepressants weren’t keeping her symptoms at bay, and she frequently felt “one step away from the abyss.” When she first heard about ketamine, from a support group for people with depression and other mood disorders, she was hesitant.
“I kind of hemmed and hawed, because I’d heard that K was a street drug,” Mary said. “But then I said, ‘What do I have to lose?’ So I went and did it.”
The results were quick: Within four days, “the cloud had lifted,” she said. More than a year later, she is still feeling good with regular infusions every three or four weeks. During the ketamine infusion, Mary said she’ll feel the dissociation, which she described as feeling like she’s viewing the world around her as though it were a movie and not her own life.
She said she’s pleased the FDA approved Spravato, though she hasn’t decided whether she’ll switch from the IV ketamine to the nasal spray. She hopes that the FDA approval will give some validation to ketamine and encourage others to try it.
Mary gets her infusions at Palo Alto Mind Body, where Dr. M Rameen Ghorieshi started offering ketamine two years ago. He’s certified with the maker of Spravato — Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a branch of Johnson and Johnson — to provide the drug, though he doesn’t know when he’ll actually start giving the nasal spray to patients.
Ghorieshi said that although he’s been offering IV ketamine for more than two years, he shares his colleagues’ wariness of the long-term effects of regular use of the drug. He hopes FDA approval will encourage further research.
“At this point we’ve done 1,000 infusions. The outcomes have exceeded my own expectations,” Ghorieshi said. “But anecdotes are not clinical trials. I approach this very cautiously. What I don’t want is 20 or 30 years from now to look back and say, ‘What did we do?’”