'Transformative': FDA approves first drug for postpartum depression

'Transformative': FDA approves first drug for postpartum depression

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By Elizabeth Chuck and Lauren Dunn

The intrusive thoughts started weeks after Stephanie Hathaway gave birth: an overwhelming feeling that her daughter deserved a better mother; that her husband deserved a better wife; that her future was hopeless.

“They just played on repeat in my head,” Hathaway, 33, of South Glastonbury, Connecticut, said. “I was holding my baby one night, and my husband was at a meeting, and I just thought, ‘Oh, my goodness. If I put the baby down, I might hurt myself.’”

Hathaway was diagnosed with postpartum depression — the intense sadness, anxiety or despair that occurs within the first year after giving birth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It affects about one in nine women, although the rate may be as high as one in every five women, the CDC finds.

Hathaway’s doctor put her on antidepressants, which helped some, but it took two weeks for the medication to kick in, and even longer until her doctor found the appropriate dosage for her. As she waited for relief, Hathaway found herself struggling to bond with her newborn, Hadley, who is now 4.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Hathaway, who had never suffered from depression before and is now a mother to two girls, said. “That’s not what I expected to feel.”

Up until this point, new mothers experiencing postpartum depression have been prescribed the same antidepressants used for treating depression in the general population, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. The drugs can take weeks to take effect, and do not address the hormonal changes that women go through during and after pregnancy.

But on Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first drug specifically developed for postpartum depression, called brexanolone, or Zulresso.

Brexanolone is novel because it has a synthetic form of the hormone allopregnanolone, a progesterone derivative, in it. The hormone increases throughout a woman’s pregnancy and then plummets after she gives birth, a possible contributor to postpartum depression.

“It’s not just the mother who suffers when there’s postpartum depression. It’s the newborn. It’s the other people in their family.”

“This can potentially transform women’s lives and that of their families,” said Dr. Steve Kanes, chief medical officer of Sage Therapeutics, the Cambridge, Mass., biopharmaceutical company that developed brexanolone. “It’s not just the mother who suffers when there’s postpartum depression. It’s the newborn. It’s the other people in their family.”

Brexanolone is not a pill. The drug is delivered intravenously over the course of a 60-hour infusion, meaning it must be administered in a medically supervised setting, such as a skilled facility or a hospital, rather than at patients’ homes.

Improvement in just 24 hours

Clinical trials for the drug were promising — not just in the number of women it helped, but in the near-instantaneous relief that is provided.

In double-blind, placebo-controlled trials, many women with moderate to severe postpartum depression saw a marked improvement of their symptoms within just 24 hours of receiving the drug. That improvement was still present 30 days after the infusion, the length of the trial.

“This is for postpartum depression, but it is a step in understanding how we treat depression more broadly,” said Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, director of the perinatal psychiatry program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the academic principal investigator in the brexanolone trials. “We have had the same treatments for depression for 30 years. There’s an enormous need for new, novel ways to treat depression, and to treat it quickly.”

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