Opioid Overdose Deaths with Buprenorphine Detected in Postmortem Toxicology: a Retrospective Analysis.

Research paper by Rachel S RS Wightman, Jeanmarie J Perrone, Rachel R Scagos, Maxwell M Krieger, Lewis S LS Nelson, Brandon D L BDL Marshall

Indexed on: 11 Jul '20Published on: 11 Jul '20Published in: Journal of Medical Toxicology


Buprenorphine is a unique μ-opioid receptor partial agonist with avid receptor binding, nominal euphoric reward, and a ceiling effect on sedation and respiratory depression. Despite a pharmacologic profile that enhances safety, cases of fatal opioid overdose with buprenorphine on postmortem toxicology are reported, but details of these cases in the literature are limited. A retrospective review of opioid-involved drug overdose fatalities in Rhode Island (RI) from 2016 to 2018 using the RI Department of Health State Unintentional Drug Overdose Reporting System (SUDORS) database. Deaths with buprenorphine on toxicology testing versus opioid-involved overdose deaths without buprenorphine were compared to assess the type and number of co-exposures. Of 534 opioid-involved deaths, 29 (5.4%) included buprenorphine and/or norbuprenorphine on toxicology. Most frequent co-exposures are as follows: fentanyl (75.9%), norfentanyl (72.4%), cocaine (41.4%), benzoylecgonine (41.4%), cannabinoids (31.0%), ethanol (31.0%), levamisole (31.0%), and free morphine (31.0%). An average number of co-exposures for fatalities with buprenorphine were 9.24 versus 6.68 in those without buprenorphine. In one case buprenorphine was the only drug listed to cause death; all other fatalities with buprenorphine on toxicology reported additional drugs contributing to death. Decedents with buprenorphine detected on toxicology testing commonly had documented polysubstance use. Although data are limited, buprenorphine may provide some risk mitigation against full agonist opioid overdose including fentanyl. Further work should explore the use of postmortem concentrations of buprenorphine, norbuprenorphine, and other opioid metabolites to determine the role of buprenorphine in fatal overdose pharmacology.