Inside an exam room in New York City, a patient is being implanted with specially-designed tablets that may change the way Americans fight opioid addiction.
The treatment is already proving powerful for Rachael Landis, a mother of two living in Australia.
“I don’t even think about doing heroin anymore like it’s not even a thought,” Landis said
She believes this new treatment is the key to beating her addiction and reuniting with the children who were taken from her.
“Without them, I just don’t feel whole, definitely a huge piece of me is missing,” she said. “I cry every time I talk about it.”
Rachael almost died in a car crash. She got addicted to prescription pain killers then started using heroin.
She couldn’t get clean until she discovered Dr. George O’Neil and the treatment he pioneered.
Here’s how it works:
Small tablets containing the drug naltrexone are surgically implanted into a patient’s abdomen.
The drug slowly releases into the bloodstream over a period of at least six months and blocks the effects of opioids. Patients can’t get physically high or overdose.
The hope is, as the months go by, patients overcome their addiction and stay off opioids for good.
“It is delightful watching our patients get better quickly,” O’Neil said.
For almost 20 years, Dr. O’Neil has implanted the tablets into thousands of people struggling with addiction in Australia.
“Each year we’ve improved and so now we’ve fine-tuned that enough to actually go to the American government and say, look, I think we’re at the stage where we really should be sharing this with you.”
Now his treatment is being tested in the United States.
Dr. Christine Rohde of Columbia Unversity traveled to Australia to learn from Dr. O’Neil.
“I did speak with people who were getting that implant placed that day as well as people who have had it for several months,” Rohde said. “But the real thing that struck me was how much this has been life-changing for the people who have received the implant.”
7NEWS was allowed exclusive access to this first-ever American trial.
Doctors at Columbia University are now implanting the tablets in healthy volunteers who aren’t addicted to test for unexpected side effects.
So, if all goes well in this phase of the trial, doctors hope to be implanting the device into patients who struggle with addiction in phase two to protect against relapse and overdose.
“This is really essential for the protection from overdose right? Keeping people alive,” Dr. Adam Bisaga of Columbia University said. “If you cannot do that you will not have any chance to help them with any behavioral change.”
Critics warn the treatment changes how the body reacts to opioids. If a patient starts using again, it could become easier to overdose.
For Rachael, it’s worth the risk.
“I couldn’t have done it on my own,” Landis said. “Quite a few friends of mine have died and they just didn’t get the opportunity I have gotten and I’m just grateful. I hope that everybody else over there can get that chance, too.”
The Columbia doctors say that if the trial goes well, this treatment could be available for Americans battling addiction in 2023.
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