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A scientist says a public-private partnership aimed at developing medications that would combat overdose deaths in the United States could potentially help chronic drug users in Canada.Getty Images/iStockphoto

A scientist says a public-private partnership aimed at developing medications that would combat overdose deaths in the United States could potentially help chronic drug users in Canada.

Nora Volkow of the National Institutes of Health said the agency has joined forces with about a dozen drug companies in the United States to try and reach the "holy grail" – the creation of a non-addictive opioid to treat chronic pain.

Pharmaceutical companies spent millions of dollars aiming for that goal and failed, but 33,000 overdose deaths in the United States in 2015 revived their interest, said Dr. Volkow, who heads the U.S. agency's National Institute on Drug Abuse.

She said Wednesday that companies then developed other drugs, wrongly believing people could not become addicted to prescription opioids.

Dr. Volkow and her colleague Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, have published a report on their initiative in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Overdoses involving overprescribing of opioids have been a major problem in the United States, creating the need for non-addictive options, Dr. Volkow said.

"That could also benefit Canada because Canada also has a significant problem with abuse and the diversion of prescription opioids."

Dr. Volkow hailed Vancouver's supervised injection sites to prevent overdose deaths but said a different health-care infrastructure has made that move impossible in her country.

Science must step in to accelerate the development of interventions to try and save lives during an opioid epidemic that is destroying communities, many involving the painkiller fentanyl, she said, the partnership also aims to develop better overdose reversal and prevention strategies.

A drug that is slow-released over six months has already been approved in the United States, and plans are under way to create new medications that are also released over extended times.

"New Hampshire has been faced with such an unprecedented rise in overdoses that they have had to come up with community solutions," she said in an interview from Manchester, N.H., where she is visiting.

She said she'd been at a fire department next to a behavioural therapy program for chronic opioid users.

Firefighters, who also carry the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, walk people who don't have health insurance to the clinic, where they get further referrals, Dr. Volkow said.

"They are engaging the fire department to actually bring patients into treatment, with no waiting lists."

Evan Wood, director of the BC Centre on Substance Use, said the involvement of Dr. Collins and Dr. Volkow in the partnership speaks volumes about the opioid epidemic.

"I think the scale of the opioid crisis has reached a point where the directors of the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse are talking about where the science can progress."

It will probably, you hope, help the mobilization of resources to this area that's been so neglected historically in health care."

However, Dr. Wood said there are ample concerns about potential budget cuts for the National Institutes of Health.

He said his centre did a clinical trial, funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, at St. Paul's Hospital using Vivitrol, an extended-release injectable drug.

"It's a really impressive medication that blocks the effects of opioids for 30 days so when people leave environments like withdrawal management services or a detox program and have Vivitrol it can be very, very helpful," he said, noting substance users are particularly vulnerable to overdosing after they've stopped using drugs.

Vivitrol, also known as Naltrexone, is not yet available in Canada, but Dr. Wood said the overdose crisis has prompted the federal government to try to improve access to such drugs.