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B.C. researchers study ‘sheet of armour’ for heroin addiction

By Michael Mui, 24 Hours Vancouver

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Researchers in B.C. are working to study the effects of a long-lasting “sheet of armour” for those addicted to opiates — medication that completely blocks opiate receptors so users won’t be able to get high even if they used drugs in the middle of treatment.

Dr. Keith Ahamad, a researcher with the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, said a joint study with patients in Vancouver and Chicago was just completed on a drug called naltrexone, specifically its long lasting, injectable version Vivitrol.

It’s markedly different from the most common treatment currently available in B.C. — methadone — which requires users to take daily doses of an opiate without euphoric effects.

Taking daily doses of medication can be considered a barrier for those in the most vulnerable populations, however.

With Vivitrol, Ahamad said, users only have to get an injection once a month for an extended period until their addiction is gone.

The catch is that patients have to already be detoxed — so they can’t be taking drugs during the beginning of treatment — and those who complete treatment may have increased risk of overdose should they relapse, since their tolerance will have disappeared.

However, the drug is currently not approved by Health Canada. Ahamad hopes his research would provide an argument that the drug should be approved and available to addicts.

The medication has also been effective to treat alcohol addiction, he said.

“It literally acts as a sheet of armour. If you were to use opiates they would have no effect,” Ahamad said.

“Health Canada needs to look at the evidence, and by doing trials like the trial we’re doing here we can show the medication is safe and effective.”

The current study, funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse in the U.S., involved 25 patients in Vancouver. It’s expected to pave the way for a larger clinical study involving patients in multiple North American cities.

Half the patients were given “treatment as usual” — methadone or the lesser-used suboxone — while the rest were given Vivitrol.

Its results are still being prepared for publication, but a previous international study out of Russia has already indicated patients on the medication were abstinent 90% of the time over 19 weeks, compared to 35% of the time for a group that received placebos.

 

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