A nasal spray version of the drug ketamine has shown promise as an antidepressant, even if its properties still aren’t well understood.
The move heralds a shift from the Prozac era of antidepressant drugs. The newly approved treatment, called esketamine, is a nasal spray developed by Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc., a branch of Johnson & Johnson, that will be marketed under the name Spravato. It contains an active portion of the ketamine molecule, whose antidepressant properties are not well understood yet.
“Thank goodness we now have something with a different mechanism of action than previous antidepressants,” said Dr. Erick Turner, a former F.D.A. reviewer and an associate professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University. “But I’m skeptical of the hype, because in this world it’s like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown: Each time we get our hopes up, the football gets pulled away.”
The generic anesthetic is already increasingly available for depression, at hundreds of clinics around the country that provide a course of intravenous treatments, and studies suggest it can help treatment-resistant people. It often causes out-of-body and hallucinogenic sensations when administered; in the 1980s and 1990s it was popular as a club drug, Special K.
The recommended course of the newly approved drug is twice a week, for four weeks, with boosters as needed, along with one of the commonly used oral antidepressants. F.D.A. approval requires that doses be taken in a doctor’s office or clinic, with patients monitored for at least two hours, and their experience entered in a registry; patients should not drive on the day of treatment.
The cost for a one-month course of treatment will be between $4,720 and $6,785, said Janssen, and experts said it will give the company a foothold in the $12 billion global antidepressant market, where most drugs now are generic.
The approval of esketamine marks a new approach to treating serious mood problems, experts said. Prozac and similar drugs enhance the activity of brain messengers such as serotonin; they are mildly effective, but they take weeks or months for their effects to be felt, and for many patients they provide little or no relief from depression. In contrast, the ketamine-based compounds — several others are being developed — work within hours or days, and are effective in some people who are considered “treatment resistant,” meaning they have not benefited from other antidepressants.