Nontherapeutic equivalence of a generic product of imipenem-cilastatin is caused more by chemical instability of the active pharmaceutical ingredient (imipenem) than by its substandard amount of cilastatin
Nontherapeutic equivalence of a generic product of imipenem-cilastatin is caused more by chemical instability of the active pharmaceutical ingredient (imipenem) than by its substandard amount of cilastatin
Maria AgudeloID 0 1
Carlos A. Rodriguez 0 1
Andres F. Zuluaga 0 1
Omar Vesga 0 1
0 GRIPE: Grupo Investigador de Problemas en Enfermedades Infecciosas, University of Antioquia (UdeA) Medical School , Medell ??n, Colombia , 2 Infectious Diseases Unit, Hospital Universitario San Vicente Fundacio ?n , Medell ??n, Colombia, 3 CIEMTO: Centro de Informacio ?n de Medicamentos y T o ?xicos, University of Antioquia (UdeA) Medical School , Medell ??n , Colombia
1 Editor: Vijai Gupta, Tallinn University of Technology , ESTONIA
Data Availability Statement: All relevant data are
within the paper and its Supporting Information
Funding: This project was financed by the
University of Antioquia?s Research Committee
(CODI), the University of Antioquia?s Sustainability
Strategy 2012-2013, and Fundacio?n Cient??fica
Rodrigo Vesga-Meneses. The funders had no role
in study design, data collection and analysis,
We demonstrated therapeutic nonequivalence of ?bioequivalent? generics for meropenem,
but there is no data with generics of other carbapenems.
One generic product of imipenem-cilastatin was compared with the innovator in terms of
in vitro susceptibility testing, pharmaceutical equivalence, pharmacokinetic (PK) and
pharmacodynamic (PD) equivalence in the neutropenic mouse thigh, lung and brain infection
models. Both pharmaceutical forms were then subjected to analytical chemistry assays
Results and conclusion
The generic product had 30% lower concentration of cilastatin compared with the innovator
of imipenem-cilastatin. Regarding the active pharmaceutical ingredient (imipenem), we
found no differences in MIC, MBC, concentration or potency or AUC, confirming
equivalence in terms of in vitro activity. However, the generic failed therapeutic equivalence in all
three animal models. Its Emax against S. aureus in the thigh model was consistently lower,
killing from 0.1 to 7.3 million less microorganisms per gram in 24 hours than the innovator
(P = 0.003). Against K. pneumoniae in the lung model, the generic exhibited a conspicuous
Eagle effect fitting a Gaussian equation instead of the expected sigmoid curve of the Hill
model. In the brain infection model with P. aeruginosa, the generic failed when bacterial
growth was >4 log10 CFU/g in 24 hours, but not if it was less than 2.5 log10 CFU/g. These
large differences in the PD profile cannot be explained by the lower concentration of
cilastatin, and rather suggested a failure attributable to the imipenem constituent of the generic
decision to publish or preparation of the
product. Analytical chemistry assays confirmed that, besides having 30% less cilastatin, the
generic imipenem was more acidic, less stable, and exhibited four different degradation
masses that were absent in the innovator.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and all Drug Regulatory Agencies (DRA) use the
term ?bioequivalence? to imply that a generic product has identical concentration and potency
with respect to the innovator (pharmaceutical equivalence) and a similar pharmacokinetic
profile (pharmacokinetic equivalence); from that it is assumed that both products have the
same efficacy in vivo (therapeutic equivalence). However, there is substantial experimental
evidence that the bioequivalence assumption is wrong [
]. Although bioequivalence does
predict therapeutic equivalence of generic antimicrobials obtained by chemical synthesis like
metronidazole , ciprofloxacin [
] and fluconazole [
], it does not for antibiotics sensu stricto
(i.e., those obtain from microorganisms), like aminoglycosides [
], penicillins [
The manufacture of complex medicines requires knowledge unavailable to the makers of
generic active pharmaceutical ingredients (API), and some compounds are definitely more
difficult to imitate than others [
]. The oversimplification of the process for marketing
generics was adopted as an ideal model by the WHO and DRA to provide universal access to
essential medicines with huge savings, and it did work out very well . However, the data
suggest that societies may have been paying a bigger price in terms of human health [
with incalculable consequences [
6, 15, 16
]. Therefore, research to determine the mechanisms
by which a ?bioequivalent? generic fails in vivo should be undertaken before the public trust in
DRA is irreversibly eroded .
Carbapenems are among the last antibiotics still useful to combat infections caused by
multidrug resistant pathogens [
]. Therefore, it is of interest to establish if generic versions of
imipenem, the first agent of its class to be approved, have any problem in terms of therapeutic
equivalence. Here, we use an experimental approach to demonstrate how one generic product
of imipenem-cilastatin, licensed in several nations to treat human patients, failed in vivo
against wild-type (WT) and multi-drug resistant (MDR) bacterial pathogens encompassing
Gram positive cocci, Enterobacteriaceae and non-fermenter Gram negative bacilli.
Materials and methods
1. Bacteria, media and antibiotics
Staphylococcus aureus GRP-0057, Klebsiella pneumoniae GRP-0107, and Pseudomonas
aeruginosa strains GRP-0019, GRP-0049, GRP-0036, and ATCC 27853 were used to infect the mice
in the different models. The microorganisms were grown to log phase in Mueller-Hinton
broth and agar for susceptibility tests, and in trypticase soy broth and agar for animal infection
models (all from Becton Dickinson, Sparks, MD, USA). Staphylococcus aureus ATCC 29213,
K. pneumoniae ATCC 43816 and P. aeruginosa 27853 were the quality control strains in
susceptibility tests; Kocuria rhizophila ATCC 9341 was the seeding organism for microbiological
assays. We bought the antibiotics from well-reputed local drugstores and reconstituted them
following manufacturer instructions. The products, both licensed for human use by INVIMA
(the Colombian DRA), included a generic product of imipenem (Inem, Ivax Pharmaceuticals,
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Mexico) and the innovator (Tienam, Merck Sharp & Dohme, Elkton, VA). Both products
came in vials with a lyophilized powder containing imipenem 500 mg and cilastatin 500 mg;
lot numbers and additional information about the products employed in this study are
described in S1 Table.
2. In vitro experimentation
Susceptibility testing. Following CLSI methods [
], generic and innovator were
compared in terms of their minimal inhibitory (MIC) and bactericidal (MBC) concentrations by
broth microdilution (2?3 assays, each by duplicate) against S. aureus GRP-0057 and K.
pneumoniae GRP-0107 (both WT isolates from patients with bacteremia), and against P. aeruginosa
reference strain ATCC 27853 (WT) and P. aeruginosa clinical strains GRP-0019 (WT),
GRP0049 (MDR, susceptible to carbapenems) and GRP-0036 (MDR, carbapenem-resistant). The
statistical significance of the difference in geometric means of MIC and MBC was determined
with the Mann-Whitney U test.
Microbiological assay. The pharmaceutical equivalence of the generic product with
respect to the innovator of imipenem was determined by comparing their standard curves
obtained with a previously validated application of the microbiological assay [
]. Both drugs
were tested simultaneously in a 36?36 cm plate originally described by Bennett in 1966 [
K. rhizophila ATCC 9341 was the agar seeding organism in Difco Antibiotic Media No. 8. Ten
concentrations of imipenem were plated, each one was repeated 12 times, incubated for 18 h at
37?C under an aerobic atmosphere, and the same researcher measured all zone diameters with
an electronic caliper. The standard curves were obtained by linear regression of
log-transformed concentrations (log10 mg/L) plotted against their respective inhibition zones in
millimeters (mean diameter and standard deviation of 12 inhibition zones per concentration). The
linear regression parameters slope and intercept were then compared by curve-fitting analysis
(CFA) with Prism 5 (GraphPad Software, Inc., La Jolla, CA). Pharmaceutical equivalence of
the imipenem component was met when the regression lines of generic and innovator were
parallel and overlaid, without significant difference in terms of the potency of the API (slope)
or its concentration (intercept). Significant differences in one or both of these parameters
implied a lack of pharmaceutical equivalence [
]. To determine pharmaceutical equivalence
of the cilastatin component, we used HPLC-UV.
Standard curves by HPLC-UV: Apparatus, solutions and chromatographic
conditions. For sample preparation, generic and innovator imipenem-cilastatin products were
used for method development in the HPLC-UV. For the standard curves, imipenem Sigma
was used as external standard. Methanol (MeOH) and HPLC-grade water were used to do the
respective dilutions in the optimization conditions [
]. The high-pressure liquid
chromatographic system consisted on a HPLC quaternary pump HP1100 instrument column oven
(Hewlett-Packard, Waldbronn, Germany) that was used and connected to an UV detector of
the same series. Separation was achieved at 20?C using a satisfaction C18 Luna column (250
mm ? 4.6 mm, 5 ?m). Mobile phase consisted of a mixture of buffer phosphate 0.1 M (pH 6.8?
7.0) and acetonitrile in a 90:10 volume ratio delivered at 0.5 mL/min in an isocratic elution.
Integration of peak areas and height for the data analysis was performed using the own
software integrator. Each sample was left running during 15 min. The auto sampler temperature
was kept at +8?C and the injection volume was 50 ?L. The detection wavelength was set at 298
nm without attenuation in the absorbance units. All samples were assayed twice.
Stability in sterile physiologic saline solution. The effect of temperature on the stability
of imipenem-cilastatin products was studied along 24 h. After product reconstitution, we
monitored aliquots of imipenem-cilastatin spiked (2,500 and 5,000 mg/L) in sterile 0.9% saline
3 / 20
solution for: (a) concentration and potency of the API immediately upon powder
reconstitution -hour 0- and one day later -hour 24- standing at 4?C, 25?C and 37?C; (b) pH changes at 0,
6, 12, 18, and 24 h; and (c) color changes determined by spectrophotometric method at 0, 6,
12, 18, and 24 h. Semi logarithmic plots of API concentration, pH or optical density versus
time were constructed to determine the rate and order of imipenem degradation.
Qualitative assay for mass spectrometry. Analytical chemistry data were obtained with
an Agilent 1100 liquid chromatograph coupled to a mass spectrometer electrospray ionization
VL system. At the stationary phase, we employed a Thermo Scientific Hypersil Gold analytical
column (150 mm x 4.6 mm, 5 ?m) for each product. We used the SIM mode to obtain the
chromatogram and the SCAN mode to capture the mass spectra with a range of m/z 150?1000.
The mobile phase consisted of A: 0.1% formic acid in water, B: 0.1% formic acid in acetonitrile
(A 90:10 B); 0.5 mL/min as a flow rate and a total run time of 10 min. Working solutions for
all studies were prepared by serial dilution of the stock solution (5,000 mg/L) [
]. To compare
the chromatograms (SIM mode) and the mass spectra (SCAN mode), all preparations for
reference material and pharmaceutical formulations were freshly prepared in deionized water at
the moment of analysis using an imipenem-cilastatin concentration of 250 mg/L. The mobile
phase was kept running in the equipment for 15 min prior to sampling and a blank sample
was run after each product (performed at least twice).
Single-dose serum pharmacokinetics in neutropenic mice infected in the thighs with P.
aeruginosa GRP-0019 (bioequivalence). Imipenem generic product was studied
simultaneously with the innovator at three dose levels, 10, 20 and 40 mg/kg. Two hours after infection,
two groups of female mice (one for the innovator and one for the generic) received a single
subcutaneous injection (0.2 mL) containing one of the three dose levels of imipenem to be
tested. Data for each dose level and product were obtained from 9 mice divided in subgroups
of 3 animals bled (100 ?L by retro-orbital puncture) three times after dosing at 5, 45, 90 (first),
15, 60, 105 (second), and 30, 75, and 120 min (third subgroup). Serum was obtained by blood
centrifugation at 10,000 g during 5 min and plated immediately (10 ?L) in duplicate for
microbiological assay. The parameters absorption rate constant (Ka), elimination rate constant (Ke),
volume of distribution (V), first-order transfer rate constant from the central to peripheral
compartment (KCP), and first-order transfer rate constant from the peripheral to central
compartment (KPC) were obtained by population PK analysis with the nonparametric adaptive
grid (NPAG) approach of the Pmetrics package (Laboratory of Applied Pharmacokinetics,
University of Southern California; available at www.lapk.org) [
3. In vivo experimentation
Ethical considerations. The experimental protocol was reviewed and approved by the
University of Antioquia Animal Experimentation Ethics Committee. Our lab and the
institutional ethics committee define specific humane endpoints for any animal subjected to
experimental procedures involving an infecting agent. For this study, animals were evaluated during
1 hour every 3 hours in search of the earliest clinical sign of impending death or poor
prognosis of quality of life, or specific signs of severe suffering, pain or distress; therefore, the maximal
delay for humane killing was 2 hours. By protocol, when animals reach any of these specific
criteria, an experienced scientist must kill them immediately by cervical dislocation: (1) any
mouse exhibiting extreme piloerection and lethargy, (2) any mouse hunched and incapable to
move for drinking or to avoid manipulation, and (3) any mouse with seizures.
Since this study includes three different animal models of human infection, each model
has some particularities regarding the welfare of the mice that we determined during the
standardization of the models for previous projects [
]. The thigh model with S. aureus
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GRP-0057 has 0% lethality in untreated animals at 48 hours, and the model ends 26 hours
after infection; none of 224 mice employed in this model ever reached criteria for humane
killing (i.e., all animals were killed at the end of the experiment). For the pneumonia model
with K. pneumoniae GRP-0107 we used 225 mice, death due to septic shock occurs between
hours 36 and 60 in 100% of untreated animals, and the model ends 38 hours after infection
(221 animals were humanely killed at the end of the model and 4 were found dead in their
cages). The meningoencephalitis model with P. aeruginosa has a 100% lethality in untreated
animals, mice die between hours 15 and 30 due to brain herniation, and the model ends 26
hours after infection; the mice started to die at hour 15 when inoculated with P. aeruginosa
ATCC 27853, at hour 21 with strain GRP-0019, and at hour 27 with strain GRP-0049. For
the meningoencephalitis model we used 324 mice, 12 were found dead in their cages, and
312 were humanely killed between hour 15 (60 mice) and the end of the experiments (252
Neutropenic mouse thigh infection model. Six-week old female MPF mice of the strain
Udea:ICR(CD-1) weighing 23?27 g were immunosuppressed by intraperitoneal injections of
cyclophosphamide (Endoxan, Baxter Oncology GmbH. D-33790 Halle, Germany) 4 days
(150 mg/kg) and 1 day (100 mg/kg) before infection [
]. Sixteen hours after the second dose
of cyclophosphamide, the animals were infected by inoculation of 5.03?5.30 log10 CFU of S.
aureus GRP-0057 per thigh. Two experimental groups were designed to receive treatment
with generic or innovator imipenem at daily doses ranging from no effect to maximum effect
(from 0.31 to 1280 mg/kg per day in the experiment with the widest range, 2 mice per dose)
administered every three hours (q3h) by subcutaneous injections of 200 ?L. Two infected
but untreated control mice were sacrificed right after inoculation (hour -2), at the onset (h0),
and at the end of therapy (h24), when all other (treated) mice were euthanized and their
thighs dissected under aseptic technique, homogenized, serially diluted, plated by duplicate
on solid medium, and aerobically incubated at 37?C for 18 h. Data were registered as log10
CFU/g and the limit of detection was 2.0 log10 CFU/g; each thigh in this model weighs 1 g,
therefore any thigh with zero colonies was entered in the database as 100 CFU/g. To
determine net antibacterial effect, the number of CFU remaining in the thighs after 24 h of
treatment was subtracted from the number of CFU that grew in the thighs of control mice during
the same period.
Neutropenic mouse aerosolized pneumonia model. We standardized and optimized this
model in order to evaluate in vivo the bactericidal efficacy of antibiotics in serious lung
infections. We have found that the natural tendency of mice to group together during the
aerosolization process increases the variance in the number of bacterial cells that reach the alveoli in
each animal, preventing a lethal infection in the individuals that remained under all others. To
deal with this problem, we first quantified the impact of the position and distribution of the
animals within the aerosolization chamber during the inoculation process testing several
options: (a) mice movement was restricted by placing groups of three within little mesh cages
that prevented grouping and allowed an uniform distribution of all animals within the
aerosolization chamber; (b) movement and grouping was unrestricted, allowing mice freedom to
locate anywhere within the chamber; (c) same as the previous option, but preventing grouping
by hand every time mice tried to regroup; and (d) half of the mice were caged and the other
half were left free.
Option (a) above was selected for all experiments because it was the most effective to
minimize variance of the inoculum size, bacterial growth in the lungs, and the time of death
(100% by hour 45 post-exposure). The pneumonia model was then standardized within
the following conditions: mice were immunosuppressed as in the thigh model and exposed
during 45 min to an aerosol containing K. pneumoniae GRP-0107 (109 log-phased
5 / 20
CFU/mL); a control group of three was sacrificed 15 minutes later (i.e., one hour after
starting aerosolization) finding in the lungs 5.04?6.47 log10 CFU/g (hour -14). Treatment (three
animals per dose) started 14 h post-infection (h0) and ended 24 h later (h24), when animals
were euthanized by cervical dislocation for aseptic lung processing and data registration as
described above; untreated control groups of three mice each were also sacrificed at these
time-points: h-14, h0 and h24. Two simultaneous experimental arms, one for the generic
and one for the innovator of imipenem-cilastatin were treated along 24 h with doses ranging
from no effect to maximum effect (10 to 1280 mg/kg per day) delivered q3h by subcutaneous
injections of 200 ?L.
Neutropenic mouse meningoencephalitis model. Using the same protocol for
immunosuppression described for the thigh model, we inoculated bacteria directly in the brain by
retro-orbital injection (10 ?L) of a log-phased culture of P. aeruginosa GRP-0019, GRP-0049,
GRP-0036, or ATCC 27853 (h-2). The size of the inoculum was different depending on the
design of each experiment (see Results). Multiple doses ranging from 20?2560 mg/kg per day
(ineffective to maximally effective) were administered q3h by subcutaneous injections of
200 ?L. The experimental arms and the untreated controls (sterile saline) started therapy 2 h
post-infection (h0) and ended 24 h later (h24), when mice were sacrificed by cervical
dislocation and their brains dissected under aseptic technique and processed for colony counting and
4. Statistical analysis of in vivo data
A sigmoid dose-response model described by the Hill equation was used to analyze and
determine in vivo efficacy by nonlinear regression (NLR):
E ? ?Emax
DN ?=?ED5N0 ? DN ?;
where E is the net antibacterial effect after 24 h of treatment (in log10 CFU/g), Emax is the
maximum antibacterial effect (in log10 CFU/g), D is the imipenem-cilastatin dose (in mg/kg per
day), ED50 is the effective dose needed to reach 50% of the Emax (in mg/kg per day), and N is
the Hill?s slope. The primary pharmacodynamic parameters (PDP) obtained from the NLR of
generic and innovator products were compared by the overall test for coincidence of the NLR,
a specialized statistical technique for CFA (Prism 5.0) [
]. Accepting a 5% chance for a
type I error, the treatment of at least 10 animals per product to compare one generic with the
innovator imipenem confers 99% power to reject the null hypothesis if the magnitude of the
difference in antibacterial efficacy is 1.0 log10 CFU/g and the standard deviation (SD) of the
residuals is <0.5 log10 CFU/g. Such difference between generic and the innovator represents a
net bactericidal effect greater than 100,000 bacterial cells per gram of tissue, a threshold value
several orders of magnitude greater than what would be considered important in clinical
Instead of the sigmoid Hill?s PD pattern expected in the animal model, the generic product
displayed a paradoxical U-shaped dose-effect curve against K. pneumoniae GRP-0107 in the
lung model. The best fit for such PD pattern is the Gaussian model, as described by
Christopoulos for compounds with simultaneous agonistic and antagonistic actions [
], but if
generic and innovator fit different PD models they are, by definition, therapeutically
nonequivalent. To establish which model more appropriately described the dose-effect
relationship of each imipenem product, we ran their respective NLR under both models, and then
computed the probability of each model being properly fit using corrected Akaike?s
Information Criteria (Prism 5.0).
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Susceptibility testing of imipenem products
S2 Table includes the geometric means and ranges (mg/L) for MIC, MBC and MBC/MIC ratio
of generic and innovator against S. aureus GRP-0057, K. pneumonia GRP-0107, and P.
aeruginosa strains ATTC 27853, GRP-0019, GRP-0049 and GRP-0036. The corresponding values of
the quality control strains S. aureus ATCC 29213, K. pneumoniae ATCC 43816 and
Pseudomonas aeruginosa ATCC 27853 stayed always within CLSI ranges. There were no differences
Fig 1 shows the standard curves generated by linear regression of generic and innovator
demonstrating pharmaceutical equivalence, i.e., there was no difference in concentration
(Pintercepts = 0.61) or potency (Pslopes = 0.62) of the API (imipenem). The nonlinear regression
analysis demonstrated that all data in the graph belonged to the same population, therefore,
it was fitted best by a single curve (P = 0.728; AdjR2 = 0.9807). However, the United States
] requires for pharmaceutical equivalence of imipenem-cilastatin
demonstration of no less than 90% and no more than 115% of the labeled amounts of both, imipenem
(C12H17N3O4S H2O; molecular weight 317.47) and cilastatin sodium (C16H25N2O5S Na; MW
380.43). Since the microbiological assay detects only antimicrobial compounds, it is necessary
to use a different method to determine the amount of cilastatin before concluding that these
products are pharmaceutical equivalents (see below).
Fig 1. Pharmaceutical equivalence. Determination of concentration and potency of the active pharmaceutical ingredient of a
generic product and the innovator of imipenem-cilastatin by microbiological assay. There are 12 data-points per drug but the size of
the error bar is smaller than each symbol (P = 0.728 by CFA).
7 / 20
Imipenem standard curves by HPLC-UV
The chromatographic conditions were adjusted in order to provide a satisfactory performance
of the assay. The calibration curves were constructed by plotting concentration versus analyte
peak area and demonstrated good linearity in the 4?1000 ?g/mL range. The accuracy of the
method was determined and the mean recovery was found to be 90?100% indicating an
agreement between the true value and the value found. The HPLC-UV method was suitably linear
with a strong correlation between instrument response (peak area) and imipenem
concentration (R 0.990). The detection and quantification limits went from 1 to 5,000 mg/L,
respectively. The intra-day relative standard deviation was lower than 10%. Determination of API
concentration (intercept) and potency (slope) in the reference, innovator and generic product
did not show differences (Pintercepts = 0.854, Pslopes = 0.478) demonstrating, as did the bioassay,
that the imipenem component of the generic product is pharmaceutically equivalent to the
innovator under current regulations.
Cilastatin quantification assay by HPLC-UV
The quantification of the pharmaceutical form was run simultaneously with the quantification
of the API (this product needs 220 DO) and the generic product demonstrated 30% less
concentration of cilastatin, implying an imipenem-to-cilastatin ratio of 1:0.7 instead of the
innovator?s 1:1. Although we demonstrated that the concentration of the imipenem component was
the same in both products, the generic did fail pharmaceutical equivalence under current
regulations by having significantly lower concentration of the cilastatin component (Fig 2). In spite
of this flagrant violation, none of the DRA of the different countries where this generic product
was commercialized detected the problem.
Imipenem stability assays
The degradation rate constant was temperature-dependent and confirmed an apparent
firstorder process; the most rapid degradation occurred at 37?C followed by 25?C. The generic
Fig 2. Cilastatin concentration. Quantitative assay by HPLC-UV for cilastatin concentration in a generic product and the innovator
of imipenem; based on the chromatograms? AUC for each product (right hand insets), the generic had a 30% lower concentration of
the inhibitor with respect to the innovator.
8 / 20
Fig 3. Chemical and physical stability. Comparison of pH (A) and colorimetric changes (B) at room temperature
(25?C) of a generic product and the innovator of imipenem-cilastatin during the first 24 hours after powder
product?s pH was lower (Fig 3A) and it exhibited a markedly higher absorbance along time
(Fig 3B). In a similar fashion, both products started with the same potency and concentration
of the API immediately after powder reconstitution (Fig 4A), but the generic suffered a
significant decrease in concentration after 24 h of storage under refrigeration (Fig 4B) or at room
9 / 20
Fig 4. Concentration and potency. Comparison of a generic product and the innovator of imipenem-cilastatin immediately (A) and
24 hours after powder reconstitution standing at 4?C (B) and 25?C (C). There was no difference immediately after reconstitution in
concentration or potency between innovator and generic. However, there were significant differences in potency after both products
spent 24 hours at 4?C or 25?C because the generic was less stable than the innovator.
temperature (Fig 4C). At 4?C, the innovator of imipenem is stable during 24 hours (and even
48 hours), but not the generic product; it caused a wide difference in potency evident in Fig
4B. However, both products are hydrolyzed at room (25?C) and physiological temperature
(37?C), and the process becomes evident as early as hour 2. At 25?C, the generic suffers
significantly greater degradation during 24 hours than the innovator, but at 37?C both products are
hydrolyzed to the same extent. That explains why the curves of innovator and generic come
closer as temperature increases (Fig 4C). Both products were equally hydrolyzed after 24 h at
37?C (not shown).
Single-dose serum pharmacokinetics in neutropenic mice infected in the
thighs with P. aeruginosa GRP-0019 (bioequivalence)
The two-compartment model with linear elimination and first-order absorption described
better the pharmacokinetics of 3 doses (10, 20 y 40 mg/kg) with both imipenem products.
Population parameter values are summarized in S3 Table and show that the imipenem component of
the generic product was bioequivalent with respect to the innovator. The comparison of the
geometric mean AUC generic/innovator ratio was 95% (90% CI 95?104), well within the 80%
to 125% range accepted by DRA everywhere.
To determine if there were differences in the degree of precipitation between generic and
innovator, we studied the PK of a fourth dose (80 mg/kg) that reach the solubility limit of
imipenem-cilastatin (10 mg/mL) [
]. In fact, both products did show precipitation at this
10 / 20
concentration, but the peak of the generic was one third lower than that of the innovator,
suggesting that precipitation was greater in the generic formulation. The data obtained from this
dose were not used to compute the population PK analysis.
In vivo efficacy of the generic product and the innovator of
imipenemcilastatin against diverse pathogens in three animal models of infection
S4 Table shows the number of bacterial cells and variance in untreated controls at the time of
the inoculum (h-2 in the thigh and brain infection models, and h-14 in the pneumonia model)
and when antibiotic treatment started (h0) and ended (h24), as well as the growth (G) of the
pathogen in the animal tissues during the execution of the model. It demonstrates that animals
develop active infections in the organs targeted by the respective model and explains their
lethality, which is 100% at 48 h post-infection.
S5 Table lists the pathogen, model, PD parameter, nonlinear regression diagnostics for the
dose-response curve of generic and innovator, as well as the result (P value) of the CFA.
Neutropenic mouse thigh infection model with S. aureus GRP-0057 (WT)
The generic product was significantly less effective than the innovator against this strain and it
was confirmed in several experiments (S5 Table). The data shown in the Fig 5 are pooled from
5 independent experiments in which the generic product was consistently less effective than
the innovator (P<0.05 for each individual experiment). Their main differences were in the
Emax: 6.31 ? 0.11 vs. 5.90 ? 0.08 log10 CFU/g in 24h for innovator and generic, respectively
(P = 0.0033 by CFA). A sixth experiment widening the dosing-range gave identical results
In vivo efficacy against K. pneumoniae GRP-0107 (WT) of generic and
innovator in the neutropenic mouse aerosolized pneumonia model
This model represents a harder PD challenge for the antibiotic not only on account of the
targeted organ, but also because K. pneumoniae GRP-0107 (MIC = 0.5 mg/L) is 33-times less
susceptible to imipenem than S. aureus GRP-0057 (MIC = 0.015 mg/L). It explains the 30-fold
larger amount of drug required to reach 50% of the Emax, which corresponds to the primary
PDP ED50, the mathematical expression of the potency of the antibiotic (S5 Table). In order to
reach maximal efficacy, the lung model required much greater doses of imipenem that,
without reaching the limit of solubility, revealed a conspicuous Eagle effect in the generic product
described by the Christopoulos equation [
]. It consists in a paradoxical and progressive
decline in efficacy in response to increments in the dose (Fig 6A). When this
pharmacodynamic pattern was analyzed with corrected Akaike?s information criteria to determine if
the Eagle effect was in fact describing the true behavior of the generic product, it was
confirmed with an 80% probability of correctness, indicating that only the Christopoulos equation
could fit its dose-response curve. The innovator?s pharmacodynamics, on the contrary, were
described by Hill?s equation with 99% probability of correctness.
To rule out the possibility of imipenem precipitation, we used higher doses in the animal
model (up to twice the limit of solubility, i.e., 160 mg/kg per dose, 20 mg/mL): the Eagle effect
became more pronounced with the generic product, which fitted the Christopoulos equation
with a 99.8% probability of correctness, while it was not seen with the innovator, which
remained fitting the Hill equation with a 99.99% probability of correctness (Fig 6B). A generic
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Fig 5. Pharmacodynamics of One Generic and the innovator of imipenem-cilastatin against the wild-type strain S. aureus
GRP0057 in the neutropenic mouse thigh infection model. The data shown in the graphs is pooled from 5 independent experiments
comparing simultaneously both products, in which the generic was consistently less effective than the innovator.
product which PD pattern is not the same of the innovator is, by definition, therapeutically
In vivo efficacy against several strains of P. aeruginosa in the neutropenic
mouse meningoencephalitis model
Elimination of P. aeruginosa infecting the central nervous system is particularly difficult
considering the toughness of the pathogen and the blockade of imipenem and cilastatin by the
blood-brain-barrier, which allows only 20% to 30% of each compound to reach the
cerebrospinal fluid with inflamed meninges [
]. This problem forced the use of very high doses,
including 80 and 160 mg/kg per dose, which correspond to once (10 mg/mL) and twice (20
mg/mL) the limit of solubility for imipenem . If, as required by DRA agencies worldwide
and as inscribed in the label of both products, generic and innovator are identical chemical
entities, overcoming the limit of solubility should not in itself affect their pharmacodynamic
equivalence. In fact, the innovator has been used at higher doses (200 mg/kg) in mice to test
for toxicity [
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Fig 6. Pharmacodynamics (PD) of One Generic and the innovator of imipenem-cilastatin against the wild-type strain K.
pneumoniae GRP-0107 in the neutropenic mouse lung infection model. Opposite to the innovator, the generic product fitted a
Gaussian instead of the Hill equation, displaying a well characterized Eagle effect. By definition, a generic with a different PD
behavior is pharmaceutically nonequivalent (left panel). Increasing the dose above the limit of solubility did not affect the innovator,
but deepened the Eagle effect of the generic, demonstrating that precipitation was not the cause of this aberrant PD pattern (right
No difference was detected in the pharmacodynamic profiles of generic and innovator
imipenem-cilastatin against the wild-type strain P. aeruginosa GRP-0019 (MIC = 0.5 mg/L), a
finding that was confirmed in five independent experiments in which treatment started against
inoculum sizes of 4, 5, or 6 log10 CFU/g of brain, the highest of which was untreatable (S4
and S5 Tables). Fig 7A shows the overlapping dose-response curves of generic and innovator
against this strain after fitting the data from all five experiments (the high variance is explained
by the widely different inocula used in each experiment).
The result with the other three strains of P. aeruginosa in the meningoencephalitis model
confirmed the lack of therapeutic equivalence of the generic product (inoculum sizes are
shown in S4 Table). Against P. aeruginosa ATCC 27853 (MIC = 1.0 mg/L), a highly significant
difference was evident between generic and innovator because the former required twice the
dose of the latter to reach bacteriostasis: 251.4 ? 22.1 vs. 131.2 ? 12.2 (P<0.0001; Fig 7B).
Against P. aeruginosa GRP-0049 (MIC = 1.2 mg/L), the generic product was less effective
instead of less potent than the innovator (Fig 7C): Emax, 5.51 ? 0.153 vs. 6.43 ? 0.196 log10
CFU/g in 24 h, respectively (P = 0.0059), with the same bacteriostatic dose (80.4 and 80.7 mg/
kg per day). The fully resistant strain P. aeruginosa GRP-0036 (MIC = 8 mg/L) was untreatable
with imipenem at the highest doses (data not shown).
LC/MS analysis of generic and innovator imipenem
The scan analysis was done in a range of m/z 150?1000 during 15 min. For both products in
solution, the MS spectrum of protonated sample (m/z 300) undergoes common fragmentation
routes described in previous studies [
]. The analysis identified 3 main product ions at m/z
257, 235, and 285, generated during the dissociation of the parental compound or its adducts
(Fig 8). This fragmentation is attributed to the facile loss of a sulfur atom or to neutral losses.
Interestingly, the generic product showed a fragmentation channel at m/z 326 much more
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Fig 7. Pharmacodynamics (PD) of One Generic and the innovator of imipenem-cilastatin against several strains of P.
aeruginosa in the neutropenic mouse brain infection model. There was no difference against P. aeruginosa GRP-0019, the strain
with the lowest imipenem MIC (0.5 mg/L), as illustrated by the overlapping dose-effect curves (A). However, therapeutic
nonequivalence was evident against the less susceptible strains P. aeruginosa ATCC 27853 (B) and P. aeruginosa GRP-0049 (C). As
expected, the carbapenem-resistant P. aeruginosa GRP-0036 was untreatable in this model (not shown).
frequently than the innovator. It could be formed after the specific loss of a nitrogen atom in a
hydrogen cyanide reaction (HCN), with a subsequent gain of a sodium atom by means of a
CHNa reaction provided by the sodium carbonate (Na2CO3) present as an excipient in the
pharmaceutical form. Alternatively, the presence of this product could rest in a greater
capacity of the generic to conform dimers (m/z 669) that, as detected in the deconvolution analysis,
lost several structures (181-235-344- or 344-NH4) during the fragmentation process. This
finding is related with the detection of a major abundance of the dimeric structures in the total
mass spectrum analysis (Fig 8).
The data demonstrate that this generic of imipenem-cilastatin and the innovator have the
same concentration of the API (i.e., imipenem), but the generic product failed pharmaceutical
equivalence due to a substandard amount of the DHP-I inhibitor cilastatin (30% less than
announced). However, the generic fulfilled DRA criteria for PK equivalence because its
imipenem component reach the same concentration of the innovator in blood, which suggests that
imipenem was protected from DHP-1 hydrolysis with only 70% of the required amount of
]. In addition to failing pharmaceutical equivalence, the generic also failed
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Fig 8. LC/MS SCAN mode (range, m/z 100?1000) of the pharmaceutical forms of the generic product and the innovator of
imipenem-cilastatin (Fresh Samples). Left (generic) and right (innovator) panels show the spectrogram (up) and under it the
centroids graphs describing the composition masses of each peak numbered. There were no differences in the analyte signal (peak 1
in both panels), i.e., the active pharmaceutical ingredient (m/z 300) is present in both products at the same concentration. However,
the generic product exhibited different structural information in the full scan analysis, represented in peaks that expressed masses
(peaks 2, 3, 4) absent in the innovator (which peaks 2, 3, 4, and 5 correspond to other masses). The peaks named 4 in the generic (left
panel) and 5 in the innovator (right panel) have different abundance for the same concentration (250 mg/L).
therapeutic equivalence in most (but not all) of our animal models, indicating that there must
be other reasons to explain nonequivalence of this product.
Although it was licensed as pharmaceutical equivalent and ?bioequivalent? by DRA in
Colombia (and in every other country in which it was commercialized), the generic product of
imipenem-cilastatin had gross chemical differences with its comparator: (1) it contains 30%
less cilastatin than required; (2) the API of the generic is highly unstable once in solution; (3) it
has lower pH after dissolution and faster acidification rate than the innovator; and (4) the
degradation process of the generic ends up in four different products not present in the innovator.
The four unexpected degradation products may result from transformation of impurities or
from molecular reorganization due to different thermodynamics. Together, these faults help to
understand the different pharmacodynamics of this generic of imipenem-cilastatin.
The only result suggesting imipenem hydrolysis in vivo (attributable to the lower amount
of cilastatin) was seen in the brain model with P. aeruginosa ATCC 27853, where generic
imipenem was twice less potent than the innovator (Fig 7B). There are only two potential sources
of imipenem hydrolysis, the murine DHP-I (3.3-fold more active against imipenem than its
human homologue) and bacterial beta-lactamases. It could not be explained by murine DHP-I
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hydrolysis because (1) the production of the enzyme in the brain is extremely low [
], (2) the
problems exhibited by this generic against the other three strains of P. aeruginosa in the brain
model were not related to potency, and (3) there was no evidence of hydrolysis in the lung
model, an organ with 3,000-fold more DHP-I than the brain [
]. This leaves bacterial
beta-lactamases as the only explanation. Cilastatin is included in the formulation of imipenem
as a competitive inhibitor of DHP-I, a zinc metalloenzyme of the membrane dipeptidase
family (M19), which encompasses enzymes from diverse kingdoms including animals and bacteria
. M19 enzymes are versatile in their substrate specificity and hydrolyze dipeptides,
dehydropeptides and beta-lactams of the trans-conformation (like imipenem), but cilastatin is a
very inefficient inhibitor of bacterial dipeptidases [
]. Although P. aeruginosa ATCC 27853 is
a wild-type strain, all members of this species produce a membrane dipeptidase called CdhR (a
transcriptional regulator of carnitine catabolic genes) that, belonging to the M19 family and
being homologue of the mammalian DHP-I, could have hydrolytic activity against
There were other two forms of nonequivalence of generic imipenem in this study, one in
the thigh model against the wild type S. aureus strain GRP-0057, and the other in the brain
model against the multidrug resistant strain P. aeruginosa GRP-0049; both can be explained by
chemical inequalities. The instability of the generic product results first and foremost in the
opening of the beta lactam ring [
], which renders imipenoic acid, a molecule that is virtually
identical to imipenem but devoid of antibacterial effect. It can compete for the molecular target
with intact imipenem, or even displace intact imipenem from its target (3). The net result from
this kind of antagonism is the Eagle effect, a paradoxical pharmacodynamic pattern of lower
efficacy with higher doses [
]. But the generic product was not only unstable, it had several
impurities and degradation products very similar to the API that could enhance the Eagle
effect. Special conditions of the microorganism and the organ targeted in each model would
define what mechanism was prevalent, but probably all of them work together with different
degrees of interference.
In conclusion, we provide experimental demonstration of a generic product of
imipenemcilastatin failing therapeutic equivalence through several mechanisms. Strictly speaking, this
generic is not a pharmaceutical equivalent of the innovator because it contains 30% less
cilastatin, but it did not prevent its DRA licensing and prescription in many countries. This gross
fault went undetected for years because it did not affect equivalence in terms of MIC, MBC, in
vitro concentration and potency of the API, or serum pharmacokinetics, and it was uncovered
only by using animal models of infection. Surprisingly, the lower amount of cilastatin was not
the only contributor to therapeutic nonequivalence. A more acidic formulation on top of a
faster acidification favored the instability of the API (imipenem) after dissolution, and four
degradation products with high similarity to the API antagonized its efficacy in vivo causing a
lower Emax or, depending on the experimental conditions, the classical agonist-antagonist
interaction known as the Eagle effect. Once again, in vivo data show that therapeutic
equivalence requires more than just ?bioequivalence? of the API, and some evidence is already
pointing to drugs other than antimicrobials [
S1 Table. Characteristics of the pharmaceutical products of imipenem-cilastatin included
in the study.
S2 Table. Determination of minimal inhibitory (MIC) and bactericidal (MBC)
concentrations of one generic and the innovator product of imipenem-cilastatin against the diverse
16 / 20
bacterial strains employed in the study.
S3 Table. Population pharmacokinetics. Comparison of one generic product of imipenem
and the innovator (bioequivalence) in neutropenic mice infected in the thighs with P.
S4 Table. Basic information for the animal models employed in the study. Bacterial load of
untreated controls at the time of the inoculum (h-2 or h-14) and when therapy with
imipenem-cilastatin started (h0) and ended (h24), as well as bacterial growth (G) along the 24-hour
treatment period, dose-range and dosing intervals designed for each infection model.
S5 Table. Pharmacodynamic parameters, regression diagnostics and statistical analysis.
Primary pharmacodynamic parameters (Emax, ED50, N) obtained by nonlinear regression,
regression diagnostics, and statistical comparison by curve fitting analysis of the dose-response
data from a generic product and the innovator of imipenem-cilastatin in diverse animal
models of infection.
Conceptualization: Omar Vesga.
Data curation: Maria Agudelo, Omar Vesga.
Funding acquisition: Omar Vesga.
Investigation: Maria Agudelo.
Methodology: Maria Agudelo, Omar Vesga.
Project administration: Maria Agudelo, Omar Vesga.
Resources: Maria Agudelo, Omar Vesga.
Formal analysis: Maria Agudelo, Carlos A. Rodriguez, Andres F. Zuluaga, Omar Vesga.
Software: Carlos A. Rodriguez, Andres F. Zuluaga, Omar Vesga.
Supervision: Maria Agudelo, Omar Vesga.
Validation: Maria Agudelo, Carlos A. Rodriguez, Andres F. Zuluaga, Omar Vesga.
Visualization: Omar Vesga.
Writing ? original draft: Maria Agudelo, Omar Vesga.
Writing ? review & editing: Omar Vesga.
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