A doctor’s vision becomes a company’s mission


Pamela Palmer, MD, PhD
AcelRx cofounder

After 15 years dedicated to researching and treating pain, Pamela Palmer, MD, PhD, found herself testifying under oath. She’d been asked to serve as an expert witness in a case of wrongful death caused by an opioid medication error in the hospital.

Palmer’s deep curiosity and commitment had propelled her to this point in her career—and would drive what she did next.


The path to expertise

As a medical student at Stanford, Palmer studied the brain in anatomy class and became interested in the nervous system and perception of pain. She decided to get a doctorate in neuroscience before going on to her residency in anesthesiology at University of California San Francisco (UCSF).

Upon completing her boards, Palmer joined the faculty of UCSF, then became the medical director of the UCSF Pain Management Center, and ultimately secured her position as director of the UCSF Pain Center for Advanced Research and Education. In this capacity, she was sought for her expertise as a witness.

Wrong dose, wrong drug

One court case led to another, and another. As Palmer prepared for her testimonies, she found tenfold miscalculations, look-alike drugs, and other errors associated with the intravenous delivery of clear liquid opioids.1,2 And she began to see an alternative.

“I thought, maybe we’ve been doing this wrong all these years,” said Palmer. “Why do we still have nurses drawing up these powerful drugs from tiny vials with tiny type?”

In 2005, Palmer formed AcelRx Pharmaceuticals to explore a different route for administering an opioid. Soon after, the subject of her research would come close to home. Her father was scheduled to undergo the same surgery as the victim in one of her overdose cases.

“Maybe we’ve been doing this wrong all these years.”

Uncomplicated delivery

Palmer and her team developed a proprietary sublingual formulation for delivering drugs with specific pharmacokinetic properties. This technology took the form of a single-strength tablet in a distinct dosing unit—a design intended to avoid the types of medication errors Palmer had seen with injectable opioids.1,3

While the team focused on refining their formulation, they were also well aware of the opioid crisis happening beyond their lab. To limit how their products would be used, they designed them specifically for medically supervised settings.3

“Doctors recognize that opioids have a place in pain management,” said Palmer. “This technology uncomplicates the delivery of these drugs when they are necessary.”

Moving forward

The products solidified the company’s purpose: To develop and commercialize, in a responsible way, innovative therapies that enhance standards of care across medical facilities. To this end, AcelRx continues to pursue new treatments and technologies to help providers reach their goal of delivering safe care for their patients.

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Learn about the pharmacology of opioids »

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  1. Dy SM, Shore AD, Hicks RW, Morlock LL. Medication errors with opioids: results from a national reporting system. J Opioid Manag. 2007;3(4):189-194.
  2. Pennsylvania Patient Safety Reporting System. Patient Safety Advisory. 2007;4(3):69-108.
  3. Data on file. AcelRx Pharmaceuticals, Inc.