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Researchers discover possible 'game changer' in treating opioid addiction

Posted at 5:16 PM, Sep 20, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-20 19:08:09-04

CLEVELAND — For those struggling to stay clean, there is a new glimmer of hope as scientists uncover what they say could be a "game changer" in treating addiction.

Sadly, we know breaking free from drugs like heroin long-term is difficult. Between 40 and 60% of those in treatment for addiction relapse within a year, according to the American Medical Association.

Now, we're learning that a certain protein in our brains may be the long sought-after secret to reducing that rate.

"Started using opioids when I was about 18, 19 years old," said Louis Brown. For Brown, pills quickly led to heroin.

"I've wanted to stay clean for a long time," said Brown. Maintaining that sobriety, however, was a constant struggle.

"I've relapsed countless times," said Brown. Willpower was just never enough for Brown.

"Coming off heroin, when you're clean from it, there's still a long tail end of misery," said Brown.

Scientists at the University of Buffalo now appear to be closing in on a new way to combat that misery.

“I'm interested to see some of the research on that," said Brown.

The University of Buffalo researches discovered heroin reduces levels of a specific protein in the brain.

That drop in drebrin, which occurs in the pleasure-seeking and reward pathways, can push addicts to start using again, according to researchers.

"The fact that people on the outside are concerned about this thing and really taking it seriously as far as this crisis is going, it's got to be God working through them to help us out," said Brown.

The team behind the new findings believe it could eventually lead to medication-based therapies focused on drebrin levels to prevent relapse.

"I think the more methods the merrier," said Tim Gerber, a former addict who now works at Stella Maris, a recovery treatment center in Cleveland.

“We've got facilities that are consistently populated with people trying to figure out a solution," said Gerber.

Finding that addiction solution quickly, Gerber said, is a matter of life and death.

The list of people he knows who lost their battle is long and still growing.

"Since I started working here, countless people, friends, family, people that have gone through here and it's unfortunate that you become so callous to it," said Gerber.

Loss is something Brown is all too familiar with.

"I lost a little brother in 2016 to a heroin overdose, as well as my father six months later, also from a heroin overdose," said Brown.

Brown has been at Stella Maris for about four months now.

"This place has honestly changed my life," said Brown.

With two younger brothers also struggling with addiction, Brown is determined to stay the course.

"I'm trying to be the good example for them as a big brother," said Brown.

The lead researcher at the University of Buffalo tells News 5 that their findings confirm drugs change the way the brain communicates with itself.

Their tests in rodents showed when drebrin was restored to normal levels, relapse behaviors were reduced.

While this news is promising, it isn't considered a quick fix. Addiction is fueled by several factors; each one needs its own treatment option. So, no magic bullet here, not yet.