FDA Approves First Pill for Postpartum Depression

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the first oral agent specifically for postpartum depression, a condition that affects an estimated one in seven mothers in the United States.

The pill, zuranolone (Zurzuvae), is a neuroactive steroid that acts on GABAA receptors in the brain responsible for regulating mood, arousal, behavior, and cognition, according to Biogen, which, along with Sage Therapeutics, developed the product. The recommended dose for Zurzuvae is 50 mg taken once daily for 14 days, in the evening with a fatty meal, according to the FDA.

Postpartum depression often goes undiagnosed and untreated. Many mothers are hesitant to reveal their symptoms to family and clinicians, fearing they’ll be judged on their parenting. A 2017 study found that suicide accounted for roughly 5% of perinatal deaths among women in Canada, with most of those deaths occurring in the first 3 months in the year after giving birth.

“Postpartum depression is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition in which women experience sadness, guilt, worthlessness — even, in severe cases, thoughts of harming themselves or their child. And, because postpartum depression can disrupt the maternal-infant bond, it can also have consequences for the child’s physical and emotional development,” Tiffany R. Farchione, MD, director of the Division of Psychiatry at the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said in a statement about the approval. “Having access to an oral medication will be a beneficial option for many of these women coping with extreme, and sometimes life-threatening, feelings.”

The other approved therapy for postpartum depression is the IV agent brexanolone (Zulresso; Sage). But the product requires prolonged infusions in hospital settings and costs $34,000.

FDA approval of Zurzuvae was based in part on data reported in a 2023 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry, which showed that the drug led to significantly greater improvement in depressive symptoms at 15 days compared with the placebo group. Improvements were observed on day 3, the earliest assessment, and were sustained at all subsequent visits during the treatment and follow-up period (through day 42).

Patients with anxiety who received the active drug experienced improvement in related symptoms compared with the patients who received a placebo.

The most common adverse events reported in the trial were somnolence and headaches. Weight gain, sexual dysfunction, withdrawal symptoms, and increased suicidal ideation or behavior were not observed.

The packaging for Zurzuvae will include a boxed warning noting that the drug can affect a user’s ability to drive and perform other potentially hazardous activities, possibly without their knowledge of the impairment, the FDA said. As a result, the agency said that people who use Zurzuvae should not drive or operate heavy machinery for at least 12 hours after taking the pill.

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