University of Vermont

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Could a new technology help the state treat more opiate addicts?

MILTON, Vt. - Treatment professionals say opiate abuse costs the U.S. about $56 billion a year. In Vermont the issue has been in the spotlight since the Governor made it the focus in his State of the State Address.

Now an associate professor at the University of Vermont is hoping a clinical trial will help get more Vermonters the treatment they need.

Jessica Brandolino was 24 when she was diagnosed with a bladder syndrome. Her doctor prescribed Vicodin, Percocet and Dilaudid for the pain, changing the medications as her tolerance grew. Brandolino got hooked.

Jessica Brandolino: It spiraled out of control.

Reporter Jennifer Reading: Do you consider yourself and addict?

Brandolino: Yes.

The Milton mom knew the dangers of prescription painkillers. She just didn't think addiction would happen to her. When her doctor cut off the medications she turned to the black market.

Jessica Brandolino: I was getting OxyContin 80s off the street, and those were costing me between $80 and $100 a day.

Reporter Jennifer Reading: Where do you get $80 to $100 a day?

Jessica Brandolino: Stealing.

Brandolino's habit landed her in jail. She realized she needed help. That was a year-and-a-half-ago. She's still waiting for treatment.
"I've called Maple Leaf -- it's a waiting list. The methadone clinic is a waiting list. All Suboxone doctors in this state are full," said Brandolino.

But the state is making strides, getting more Vermonters the help they need. At the start of 2014, 767 opiate addicts were on treatment waiting lists. Four months later that number has dropped to 427. Right now 2,124 opiate dependent Vermonters are getting treatment through state programs.
Now University of Vermont researcher Stacy Sigmon is hoping to clear that backlog even faster with a revolutionary technology from Finland.
"I hope to start recruiting in May," said Sigmon. "We'll place each day's dose in each of these individual cells around the device."

Sigmon is the first medical professional in the U.S. to use a Med-O-Wheel to treat opiate addiction. It's a computerized, portable device that dispenses a daily dose of bupenorphine. It's a medicine designed to help addicts get clean by controlling cravings. The project is part of a $700,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health. It will support a clinical trial for 85 patients over the next two years."In the standard pill bottle you get your whole script for the month, for example, all in one place. And every time you open the lid you have access to the whole 30 day supply, and that can be tough for patients with a history of medication misuse or drug use to keep secure," said Sigmon.

Sigmon says a single pill is only available to the patient for a two hour window and the transparent back easily allows staff to check for pill diversion. The study couples take home meds with counseling and phone based monitoring. Sigmon, who also heads the state's largest methadone clinic, says this device eliminates daily trips to a clinic and allows doctors to take on more patients, especially in rural communities where treatment centers may be farther away.
"It's fairly secure. I mean nothing is stopping someone from backing their car over it and destroying it but that's certainly going to be obvious whenever they come for the pill count," said Sigmon.

"I think it's a good idea," said Brandolino. For addicts like Brandolino the study offers hope, but until she's selected or a treatment spot opens, she continues to turn to the streets to avoid getting dope sick. "I use Suboxone off the street. A lot of people get prescribed it and don't take their dose that they're supposed to and sell the rest," said Brandolino.

The Med-o-Wheels are pricey. Each one costs about $400 -- an investment the state would have to consider if the study proves effective.
If you or someone you know is interested in participating click here for more info.