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Health chiefs accused of blocking new therapy for heroin addicts

EDDIE BARNES , February 4, 2007

HEALTH chiefs are blocking a revolutionary treatment for heroin addicts because of their "obsession" with the replacement drug methadone, experts claimed last night.

Scotland on Sunday can reveal that officials are refusing to offer the treatment, known as neuro-electric therapy (NET) to Scotland's 20,000 addicts, claiming they need more proof that it works.

 

But organisers of an unprecedented trial of NET which took place last week, funded by artist and former addict Peter Howson, have now claimed their real reason is to save face over methadone.

They say methadone is ruining the lives of thousands of addicts across Scotland, condemning them to modern-day "slavery".

The row has broken out in the wake of the trial, held at a secret location in Scotland, which appears to have successfully weaned two hardened Scots addicts off heroin and methadone within the space of a week.

The men claim their lives had been ruined by having been put on the highly addictive methadone, and that only through NET had they managed to come off drugs.

NET works by sending electric pulses into the brain which help to release endorphins - the body's natural pain killers. Backers say it reduces the intense pain caused by withdrawal by as much as 80%.

Doubts over methadone re-emerged late last year after a new study showed that only 3% of heroin addicts had managed to kick their habits after being prescribed the replacement.

The concerns prompted First Minister Jack McConnell to ask health officials at the Chief Scientist Office to study NET as an alternative to methadone.

But any hope the treatment might be used has now disappeared. Scotland on Sunday has obtained details of a series of meetings held last year at which, according to NET backers, officials sought to obstruct their proposals.

First, the CSO declared that "insufficient information" was available to enable it to take it on. At a subsequent meeting in November, it then decided that NET should be trialled on nicotine - an exercise which backers say will be a waste of time because it will prove nothing about heroin. A large-scale trial is required before the NHS will adopt a new treatment, but the NET backers say the bureaucratic hurdles imposed by the CSO have left them with no hope of continuing.

Lorne Patterson - whose mother Dr Meg Patterson invented the treatment - said: "They are not a proactive organisation. If a research proposal is put to them then they consider it, but they are not going to go out of their way to find evidence."

Patterson added: "There is huge difficulty in getting them to accept that the responsibility is theirs to get this to start."

John Mullen, director of the Third Step charity, which organised the NET trial last week, said: "The people who talk it down are the very ones who promoted methadone. Methadone has been a complete disaster but those people behind it are not going to let their reputations be tarnished."

The two addicts who successfully completed the NET trial last week said that the therapy had helped them through the cold turkey phase.

One of the men, Alan Lindsay from Glasgow, said: "It has been tough but this is about 80% better [than cold turkey]. You don't get the cravings as bad as you do when you're not on the machine. Then you just can't control it. You are rattling - you would go through a brick wall to get a hit."

The other addict, Glenn Keys from Motherwell, who has been on drugs for a decade, added: "This week has got me over the withdrawals which I could never had done before. The therapy stops the worst withdrawals. I wouldn't be able to do anything if I hadn't had this box on."

Mullen added: "If we could keep this up, I believe that in six months' time, I could bring 100 former addicts to Edinburgh and show the MSPs: here are 100 people who have been brought off heroin."

A source close to the First Minister admitted that the health chiefs had the final say over the matter. "Part of the problem is that for this to be approved for widescale use, you have to go through trials in order for doctors to accept it. The First Minister has given it his political support, but we need more to get it used more widely," the source said.

But a spokesman for the Scottish Executive denied that the CSO was blocking the treatment: "We are not slowing down the evaluation process. Advice from experts was that small-scale preparatory studies designed to test the basic method might be the best starting point, possibly initially based on nicotine."

However, backers said they would not be giving up the fight.

Maxie Richards, a longstanding campaigner against drug misuse in Glasgow, said: "When you are on methadone, you can't work; you can't drive; it is a minor sedative so you can't work with machinery. You can't get away because you have to go to the chemist every day. I thought William Wilberforce got rid of slavery 200 years ago, but we have a whole new generation of slaves here in our midst."

On NET, she added: "Everything is being stalled. They [the CSO] are not prepared to act because the general public don't know the whole story. They are stalling. If they wanted a big trial they could."

'I believe it works because I have seen it work'

HE WAS sitting on the front steps, concentrating hard on his roll-up and not on the electrodes positioned behind his ears.

Ronald McLelland had had his last fix of heroin earlier that day and was feeling understandably nervous about his new role as medical guinea-pig in the trial of NET.

"I've been using eight years - three bags a day - and I have done everything an addict does to feed my habit," he said. "I have stolen off my parents and friends. I have held a knife to other addicts' throats to get their heroin. I have held knives to the throats of people in the street to get money to buy drugs. I have been to jail. I lost my brother to an overdose. So there is nothing I don't know about this life."

The 26-year-old from Ayrshire gestured to the battery pouch attached to his waist and the wires leading up to his ears.

"That's why I think this is my last chance of getting clean. I have a three-year-old daughter I haven't seen since she was eight months and I want to get my life back."

McLelland was one of the six hard-core addicts who last week volunteered to take part in the trial of NET at a Lanarkshire farmhouse.

They had been fitted with the equipment by Lorne Patterson, whose mother Meg developed the technique in the 1970s and is alleged to have treated rock star Eric Clapton among other well-known musicians of the era.

In the absence of large-scale medical trials, the technique has been kept alive by her family in isolated clinics around the world. Meg Patterson eventually settled in Lanarkshire before she died and a friend has now loaned his farmhouse for the trial.

The six male addicts who arrived last week - six women will be treated later this month - were individually fitted with the electrodes, held in place behind their ears with tape.

Although four of them, including McLelland, left the centre after a few days, the treatment is gradually gaining support. The theory is that a small charge of electric current from the battery pack will restore the balance of chemicals in the brain that have been severely disrupted by addiction.

The NET device is switched on constantly and all wearers feel is a slight tingling sensation. When drug cravings appear, the current is turned up and the sensation should subside. Supporters of the technique claim cravings are reduced by up to 80% over a period of six to 10 days as long as the device is worn and used throughout that period.

A Scottish doctor associated with the trial said: "I believe it works because I have seen it work. Putting people on methadone just gives them two addictions. But it isn't a cure.

"This works by reducing the cravings. It means that when an addict wakes up in the morning his or her first thought is not 'where do I get my fix?' It makes them much more amenable to counselling and finally breaking the vicious circle for good."

The addicts stay in the farmhouse, in a secluded location overlooking beautiful Lanarkshire countryside, for up to 10 days.

Their withdrawal from drugs is overseen by a medical doctor. All enter with the knowledge that however bad their cravings get, no drugs will be available. Part of the deal, if they stay the course, is that they will either live with their families in the immediate aftermath or enter a rehabilitation centre to ensure they stay off drugs.

John Mullen, one of the organisers. said: "There is no point in them going through this if we are just going to pitch them out alone on to the streets again. We want this to work and keep on working."