Study links breathing problems to drug that treats opioid addiction

Published: Feb. 1, 2018 at 3:06 PM EST
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A drug many health professionals use to treat opioid addiction could cause breathing problems in some obese patients, according to a study released by scientists at the University of Tennessee.

Ralph Lydic, the study's lead author, examined buprenorphine, a schedule III drug believed to have a lower abuse potential than methadone. The controlled substance is one of the three drugs approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to suppress symptoms of opioid withdrawal for patients undergoing opioid abuse treatment.

"The discovery of the drug’s previously unknown side effect could help clinicians improve patient care," Lydic commented.

The UT study compared the impact of buprenorphine on mice of normal weight and obese mice. Lydic and his research partner Helen Baghdoyan found that the drug hinders the ability of obese mice to vary their breathing rate.

How does this impact East Tennesseans seeking addiction recovery? Health professionals explained that the body's ability to vary breathing helps a person achieve daily tasks like climbing stairs and respond to physical challenges like fighting disease.

“Given the impressive similarity between mouse and human genes, the mouse data encourage studying the effects of buprenorphine on breathing variability in male and female obese humans,” Lydic said.

The new research emerges as officials struggle with finding a solution for the country's intense opioid crisis that has ravaged the Appalachian region. A report by the Appalachian Regional Commission discovered that the overdose death rate was 65 percent higher in Appalachian areas compared to the rest of the nation in 2015.

UT researchers said the study's findings now present a challenge for clinical providers to slash the drug cravings of addiction patients without seeing a possible spike in respiratory depression.