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New implant could be a game changer for opioid addicts

DRAPER — Cari Kinder loves playing with her dogs and spending time with her nieces and nephews. These simple joys were once impossible for her. She was stuck in the crippling haze of opioid addiction.

Utah ranks fifth in the nation for overdose deaths. A subdermal implant is before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval that would help people like Kinder. Doctors place it in the upper arm, and it provides a slow and steady release of a drug to treat addiction. Doctors say it will save lives.

Kinder began taking opioids nine years ago to treat chronic pain from multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia. She said she can't function without pain medication.

"It's bad. It's pretty bad," said Kinder, who is 36. "Some days it's hard to even get out of bed."

She got hooked. Soon, her life was out of control.

"Taking the prescribed amount, your tolerance builds up, so you take more to be able to function," she said.

She doctor shopped, going from office to office and then illegally bought them on the street.

"It just hit me like a ton of bricks that my life was completely a mess," she said. "I was dependent on these prescription medicines."

Probuphine, the implant, would administer a medication that treats addiction in addicts who are stable. Doctors say it would reduce the risk of relapses and overdose deaths.

"Addiction is a chronic disease that like any other disease, like diabetes or high blood pressure, needs long-term, chronic treatment," said Beshad Sheldon, CEO of Braeburn Pharmaceuticals, the company that developed Probuphine. "It's actually very difficult to expect people to give up their addiction or come off or be done with it."

Often, opioid addiction leads to heroin abuse.

Dr. Steve Warren with Proactive Pain Center treats Kinder. He hopes the FDA approves the implant because it will keep addicts safe and allow them to lead healthy and productive lives. All too often he's seen patients veer off the deep end.

"And then the dealer says, 'Oh, it's such a deal I have for you. I have heroin. You're not shooting it, you're just smoking it. It's 10 times cheaper, 10 times stronger," he said. "And I'll tell you, once they smoke it the very first time, the game's over."

He prescribed a similar drug to treat addiction, taken orally, which saved Kinder.

"It turned my life around with my family," Kinder said. "I'm able to work almost full time."

She said the implant would provide greater peace of mind and stability for former addicts like her to remain clean and enjoy life.

"I'm able to interact with my nieces and nephews, play with them, and be present for them. It's just the best feeling," she said.

An advisory committee to the FDA voted to approve Probuphine. The FDA isn't obligated to follow their recommendation, but it should have an answer in three months.

Heather Simonsen is an Emmy-winning health reporter for KSL 5 TV. She's been featured in O Magazine, the New York Times, Salt Lake Magazine, Utah Style & Design and local newspapers. She was a spokesperson for the Olympics and is the mother of three.