WSU tests naloxone, heroin overdose nasal spray

A nasal spray capable of countering the immediate effects of heroin or prescription pain pill overdoses could be in Washington State University students’ hands by fall.

The project from WSU’s College of Pharmacy is aimed at establishing naloxone’s benefits to students with hopes of spreading the program to college and university campuses nationwide.

“There’s not an overdose problem in Pullman; there’s an overdose problem in the world,” said John White, chairman and professor at the College of Pharmacy’s pharmacotherapy department. “If we could save one student’s life, isn’t it worth it?”

He adds, “This is a proactive approach.”

More people are dying from drug overdoses than car accidents for the first time, according to a 2013 report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heroin use has increased 75 percent in the past 10 years. On Monday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the increase in heroin overdoses a “public health crisis.”

Naloxone has been used for years by medical professionals to reduce the effects of overdose. It’s not dangerous or addictive, medical experts say.

The WSU project is aimed at putting it in the hands of students on campus, where it could be administered within minutes.

“Given that college-age students are particularly at risk for experimenting with alcohol and other drugs, this project has the potential to be extraordinarily impactful,” said Gary M. Pollack, dean of the WSU College of Pharmacy.

Naloxone has existed for decades in liquid form and is normally injected into a vein or muscle to reverse an opiate drug overdose, most commonly triggered by hydrocodone, oxycodone or heroin. But naloxone can also be administered as a nasal spray, which is what will be available to Pullman students.

The College of Pharmacy hopes to recruit 150 students to be trained to recognize a drug overdose, assemble naloxone nasal spray (liquid, a syringe and an atomizer) and administer the drug prior to emergency services’ arrival.

“It’s like learning CPR, except it’s more cutting edge,” White said.

University officials realize that distributing naloxone could be considered as avoiding the real issue of drug abuse.

“Sadly, the cure (to a drug overdose) has been elusive, and is seemingly beyond the influence of those who are in the best position to offer a rational solution: health care providers and the individuals, families and friends who have been so adversely affected,” Pollack said. “In the interim, there is an urgent need for options to treat drug overdoses as they occur.”

WSU’s College of Pharmacy is working with a company on a single-use atomizer device to make naloxone easier to administer, which in turn could make it more available. Overcoming both those obstacles could pave the way to FDA approval of nasal-spray naloxone as a treatment for opiate overdose.

The current nasal spray delivery system offers a 4 percent bloodstream absorption rate. The WSU team came up with a formula that offers 10 times the absorption rate by adding molecules commonly used in toothpaste and hair conditioner.

The Centers for Disease Control, the White House drug czar, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Federal Drug Administration are all interested in making naloxone easier to administer.

“The project in Pullman is what we can do now,” said White, who began working on the project four years ago. “Ultimately, what we want is something that’s FDA-approved. It boils down to a very simple approach, (but) making it happen is highly complicated.”

Naloxone not new

Naloxone has existed for decades in liquid form and is normally injected into a vein or muscle to reverse an opiate drug overdose, most commonly triggered by hydrocodone, oxycodone or heroin. Naloxone can also be administered as a nasal spray.

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