Can a skin patch reverse a drug overdose? ETSU professor aims to answer with research

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Drug overdoses claimed about 130 American lives each day in 2019.

As the number of opioid overdoses continued to climb over the past 20 years, so did efforts to curb the death toll of the nationwide epidemic.

A researcher at East Tennessee State University’s Gatton College of Pharmacy says she hopes her research can shed some light on reversing drug overdoses through the skin.

Naloxone, what some call the ‘antidote’ to an opioid drug overdose, made its way from clinics into the hands of the public over the past decade, and naloxone administration training programs have been sprouting at festivals, fairs and on college campuses in an effort to reach those at-risk for overdose.

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In a clinic, naloxone could be administered through an IV. The naloxone handed out at training programs are in one of two delivery systems – a spring-pen needle resembling an Epi-pen administered through the muscles or fat, or a nasal spray.

Dr. Ashana Puri, associate professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Gatton, said she believes in the benefits of a third delivery system – through the skin.

Puri received a grant from the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy to begin work on researching the possibilities transdermal treatment of opioid overdose, or administering naloxone through the body’s largest organ, the skin.

“It’s something that I feel that if this kind of delivery system would be there, it would be more consistent, more efficient, and of course it would be a non-injectible so it probably would be widely accepted,” she said.

Opioid overdose is fatal because the drugs affect parts of the brain that regulate breathing. An overdose can cause the person to stop breathing.

When naloxone enters the brain, it “kicks” the opioids off of those receptors, and the patient begins breathing again.

Because of this, time is of the essence when treating an opioid overdose to get oxygen back into the brain. Puri said that sometimes multiple doses of an injectable or spray can be needed as current iterations of the medication wear off quickly.

She said she hopes to discover whether transdermal delivery systems can improve on both of those fronts.

“My idea is if I can come up with a delivery system that delivers naloxone quickly but then it can sustain its effect for a long time, then you do not have to take the next dose of injection of a spray,” she said.

Dr. Puri explains the testing process. She said skin from a cadaver or a pig’s ear will be used to test how naloxone is absorbed through the skin.

Research into transdermal drug treatment lags behind the effectiveness of oral and injectible solutions, and Puri said she anticipates some challenges when it comes to getting naloxone into the system quickly to reverse an overdose.

“The challenge I’m thinking of is how early can I get a response using different technologies through skin,” she said. “I’m really interested in looking into how the results show up.”

Microneedles are tiny needles that are designed to penetrate the outermost layer of the skin and give medicine a path into the body. Microneedles are pressed on to the skin with a patch and because the needles are so small, they don’t cause any pain or bleeding.

Puri said microneedles could be the answer to putting naloxone in a patch if it gets into the body quickly enough.

Time will tell, and Puri said her research will begin soon.

“I am not sure if it can work, not work, but this is something that I was interested (in learning),” she said. “I am really happy that (the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy) believed in my idea and gave me the support I need to actually test it out.”

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