FDA approves brexanolone for postpartum depression


The Food and Drug Administration on March 19 approved the first medication specifically for the treatment of postpartum depression.

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The drug, brexanolone (Zulresso), is to be administered as a single continuous 60-hour infusion for each episode of postpartum depression. Its exact mechanism of action is unknown, but it is thought to work by modulating the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). By binding to GABA A receptors, brexanolone increases receptor functionality. The recommended maximum dose of brexanolone is 90 µg/kg/h, and the infusion includes three dosing phases.

Brexanolone provides “an important new treatment option,” said Tiffany Farchione, MD, acting director of the division of psychiatry products in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a press release. “Because of concerns about serious risks, including excessive sedation or sudden loss of consciousness during administration, Zulresso has been approved with a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) and is only available to patients through a restricted distribution program at certified health care facilities where the health care provider can carefully monitor the patient.”

The approval was based on results of three phase 3 trials, which were double-blind, randomized, and placebo-controlled studies in which the primary efficacy endpoint was a change in baseline 60 hours after the start of the infusion on the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HAM-D). In all two of the trials, known as Hummingbird 202B and 202C, brexanolone’s impact on the patients’ HAM-D scores was greater than that of placebo, the FDA reported in briefing document released late last year. In addition, the impact of brexanolone on postpartum depression proved both rapid and durable.

Side effects observed in about 3% of the brexanolone patients included dizziness, dry mouth, fatigue, headache, infusion site pain, somnolence, and loss of consciousness. The FDA’s concern about loss of consciousness led the agency to recommend a REMS protocol before a hearing of its Psychopharmacologic Drugs Advisory and Drug Safety and Risk Management Advisory panels late last year. The Zulresso REMS Program will require that the drug be administered by a clinician in a health care facility that is certified. Patients will have to be monitored for excessive sedation and “sudden loss of consciousness and have continuous pulse oximetry monitoring (monitors oxygen levels in the blood),” the FDA said. Another requirement is that patients who receive the infusion will have to be accompanied while interacting with their children. Patients will be advised not to drive, operate machinery or engage in other dangerous activities until they feel totally alert. Those requirements will be addressed in a boxed warning.

The drug should be either adjusted or discontinued for patients whose postpartum depression becomes worse or for those experience suicidal thoughts and behaviors after taking brexanolone, the agency said.

Some physicians use antidepressants to treat postpartum depression, but their effectiveness is limited, according to the FDA. Interventions such as electroconvulsive therapy and psychotherapy also are used, but getting results can several weeks.

The symptoms of postpartum depression are indistinguishable from major depressive disorder, but “the timing of its onset has led to its recognition as potentially unique illness,” the FDA said. Postpartum depression in the United States affects up to 12% of births. In the developed world, suicide is the most common cause of maternal death after childbirth. This suicide risk makes postpartum depression a condition that is life-threatening. In addition, the condition has “profound negative effects on the maternal-infant bond and later infant development,” the FDA said.

SAGE Therapeutics, developer of brexanolone, secured the approval through the FDA’s breakthrough therapy designation process.

Heidi Splete contributed to this article.

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