A biotechnology company said Wednesday it was developing a tamper-resistant version of the painkiller OxyContin, sometimes called “hillbilly heroin” because of its popularity as an illicit drug.

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South San Francisco-based Pain Therapeutics said its experimental gel capsule resists the easy tampering that turns the approved pill from a legally prescribed painkiller into a potent and sometimes fatal high for drug abusers.

OxyContin was hailed as a breakthrough in the treatment of severe chronic pain when it was introduced in 1996. But the drug has become a problem in recent years after users discovered that crushing the time-release tablets and snorting or injecting the powder yields an immediate, heroin-like high.

“If you can crush Alka Seltzer with your hand you can crush OxyContin,” Pain Therapeutics chief executive Remi Barbier said.

Barbier said Remoxy is a sticky gel cap, which makes it hard to ground into powder and that the active ingredient — oxycodone — is difficult to extract when submerged in alcohol and water, two popular ways that abusers refine OxyContin.

Remoxy has yet to be tested in people and the company is at least two years from applying for Food and Drug Administration approval.

Drug counselors, lawmakers and others have advocated for a harder-to-abuse version of OxyContin, which remains popular despite its negative publicity highlighted recently by radio commentator Rush Limbaugh’s admission he has misused OxyContin.

Last year, about 7 million OxyContin prescriptions were written for about $1.27 billion in sales, said its manufacturer, Purdue Pharma of Stamford, Conn.

Purdue Pharma said on its Web site that it “has committed hundreds of millions of dollars” attempting to create its own tamper-resistant drug. But company spokesman James Heins said any new technology can’t completely eradicate misuse of painkillers.

“Even the most abuse-resistant medication is not going to be abuse-proof,” Heins said.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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