Pittsburgh scientists set their sights on longer-lasting Narcan to combat opioid overdoses | TribLIVE.com
Allegheny

Pittsburgh scientists set their sights on longer-lasting Narcan to combat opioid overdoses

Chuck Biedka
1666122_web1_VND-Antiopiate2-052119
Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review
Saadyah Averick in his lab at Allegheny Health Network’s Research Institute.
1666122_web1_VND-Antiopiate1-052119
Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review
Saadyah Averick, a researcher and assistant professor at Allegheny Health Network’s Research Institute, talks about the improvements to Narcan he and a team are working to accomplish.
1666122_web1_VND-Antiopiate4-052119
Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review
Chemist Saadyah Averick and his colleagues are in an arms race against powerful synthetic opioids.
1666122_web1_VND-Antiopiate6-052119
Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review
Chemistry can find ways to help more people who are overdosing on synthenic opioids, said Saadyah Averick, a chemist at the Allegheny Health Network’s Research Institute.
1666122_web1_VND-Antiopiate5-052119
Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review
Heroin, fentanyl and similar drugs turn on opiate receptors in the body. Narcan turns that receptor off. But the medicine is typically flushed from the body in less than an hour. Modified Narcan would change that, said chemist Saadyah Averick.

Two Pittsburgh scientists are trying to keep emergency medicine a step ahead in what’s become an opioid arms race.

Saadyah Averick, a chemist at the Allegheny Health Network’s Research Institute, and his colleague, Benedict Kolber, a neurobiologist at Duquesne University, are working to develop a type of naloxone that will stay active in an overdose victim’s body for up to two days — far longer than the 45 minutes the drug works in a person’s body now.

Naloxone is the anti-overdose drug more commonly known as Narcan that is used to reverse the effects of opioids such as heroin.

Narcan has been extremely effective in helping to reduce the number of overdose deaths, but synthetic opioids such as fentanyl are forcing doctors and first responders to use multiple doses of Narcan because the synthetics are much more powerful than heroin.

The drug works by turning off receptors in the brain that are activated by opioids. But, said Kolber, Narcan usually is flushed from a person’s body in less than an hour.

Fentanyl, being so much more potent, can outlast traditional Narcan in a patient’s body, making repeated doses of Narcan necessary to prevent an overdose.

“There can be multiple highs because the drugs are so potent and outlast Narcan,” Averick said.

An extended-release Narcan appears to more effectively contend with fentanyl.

“We’re trying to make Narcan longer-acting and, therefore, limit doses to someone who does overdose to avoid overdosing again from drugs that might still be in their system and avoid the constant need for monitoring and more intervention,” Averick said.

Averick and his colleagues are formulating the rescue medicine inside a minute particle, called a nanoparticle, to slowly release Narcan. A slower, consistent release of the medicine doesn’t shock the patient into withdrawal, he said.

“What we wanted to do is make that drug longer-acting because naloxone itself is destroyed, degraded by our livers relatively quickly, and then it’s eliminated,” he said.

When Narcan is dumped into a body soon after an overdose, an addict is often jolted awake. People often wake up in a lot of pain. Eventually, that can prevent them from wanting to go into rehab because of the negative association with taking them off drugs, Averick said.

“By putting it into a nanoparticle, it will allow for the drug to be trapped but then slowly released as the particle degrades over time,” he said.

The nanoparticle is the same material as a dissoluble stitch, Averick said. That substance has already been approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration.

“We have managed to incorporate the naloxone into that material … effectively chemically stapling it to the end of the polymer,” Averick said.

The product will need approval from federal regulators before it can be used on humans. It is not known when the longer-lasting Narcan could be available.

Kolber said the Pittsburgh research is progressing.

“We’re solidly in the middle (of the project) and we’re finding out, yes, it does work,” Kolber said.

“I am aware of the Averick study,” said Dr. Ivan Montoya, who directs a division of the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Montoya said research is encouraged by numerous programs, including one authorized in 2018.

“There are multiple studies under way since money was allocated from Congress in the HEAL program,” he said.

HEAL stands for Helping to End Addiction Long-Term. Among other things, HEAL seeks at least five therapies or medicines annually to send to the FDA for approval to fight addiction or to find better painkillers less likely to lead to addiction, he said.

In the meantime, the Pennsylvania Department of Health will continue to distribute standard Narcan kits throughout the state.

In December, the department handed out 6,000 Narcan kits, said Raphael Barishansky, deputy secretary of health preparedness and community protection.

This year, the department hopes to distribute about 10,000 kits at more than 90 locations during a special event Sept. 25, Barishansky said. He agrees that more Narcan doses may be needed to deal with fentanyl.

Barishansky said the department just learned about the Narcan research under way in Pittsburgh.

“We’re looking forward to the results,” he said.

Chuck Biedka is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chuck at 724-226-4711, [email protected] or via Twitter .

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.