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Replacing morphine with methadone in the NICU

morphine vial and needle

A synthetic analgesic drug, known as methadone, may serve as a better alternative for newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) suffering from opioid withdrawal syndrome, according to a commentary published in Pediatric Research.

A synthetic analgesic drug, known as methadone, may serve as a better alternative for newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) suffering from opioid withdrawal syndrome, according to a commentary published in Pediatric Research. Some existing literature suggests that methadone may also address painful stimuli that hinders neurodevelopment throughout adulthood, added Johannes van den Anker, M.D., Ph.D., division chief of Clinical Pharmacology at Children’s National Hospital.

The commentary was selected as the Editor’s Focus in Pediatric Research for the June editionsignaling the scientific community as noteworthy to further explore methadone’s potential as an alternative for pharmacologic treatments instead of morphine.

“It is important to define the pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of methadone to treat pain in neonates in intensive care before replacing morphine with methadone. Pre-clinical research shows that the use of methadone might have fewer side effects than morphine,” said Dr. van den Anker. “If this is also the case in the human neonate, then a shift from morphine to methadone might be beneficial. However, first, we need to define what the safe and effective dose of methadone will be for this purpose.”

While there is a need to better understand how newborns and preemies metabolize methadone, there is existing knowledge that this drug minimizes pain. The commentary, too, raises the question for clinicians to possibly consider methadone as a better option to avoid long-term negative neurodevelopmental consequences — such as hypersensitivity to re-injury in later life — usually associated with pain.

The current but limited data out there still provides “exciting and stimulating” information about the possible use of methadone for the treatment of neonatal pain in the NICU, according to Dr. van den Anker. He believes that, in the future, methadone could also serve as mechanism-based analgesia in newborns experiencing pain.

“There needs to be a collaboration between neonatal medicine specialists, pharmacometricians and developmental pharmacologists to assure not only the generation of evidence-based data to determine these optimal dosing regimens, but also to facilitate the implementation of this new knowledge into daily clinical care in neonatal intensive care units across the globe,” added Dr. van den Anker.