The O’Neil Naltrexone Implant
- Reporter: Bryan Seymour
- Broadcast Date: July 10, 2007
His medical devices are already saving lives all over the world, but his latest is set to revolutionise the treatment of all sorts of illnesses.
He could sell his invention and retire to live a life of luxury. Instead, this man’s passion to help others has led him to put everything on the line, including his family home.
You’ve heard of Fred Hollows, who’s work restored the sight of over a million people; heart transplant pioneer Dr Victor Chang and plastic surgeon Dr Fiona Wood, whose spray on skin helps burns victims worldwide. Now welcome to the club, Dr George O’Neil.
The implant technology he’s created could make him and his wife Chris multi-millionaires.
"Now what would I do with that!" laughed Chris.
"He could end up revolutionising the way that we treat drug addiction," said Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott.
"George got me by treating my addiction (of) heroin and cocaine," said one reformed drug addict, one of the thousands who owe Dr O’Neil their lives.
Dr O’Neil is a local GP in Perth, who’s spent most of his professional life treating expectant mothers. He’s also a visionary who is changing the world.
First he invented the Balloon Infusofeed to save millions of children in Africa from dying of malnutrition. Then he came up with an analgesic inhaler so that child burn victims wouldn’t have to put up with needles for pain relief.
Now there’s his revolutionary treatment for addiction that works on everything from smoking, gambling and alcohol to amphetamines and heroin.
It’s his own invention, called the Naltrexone Implant. Tablets of the drug Naltrexone, mixed with a polymer that can be implanted under the skin where the tablets slowly dissolve away to nothing.
"The implants now are effectively, usually a two hundred day treatment, so that gets people better for two hundred days," said Dr O’Neil.
Today George O’Neil and his army of volunteers are celebrating 10 years, a decade of treating addicts of all sorts, from all walks of life, from all over the world.
So far, nearly four thousand addicts have received the O’Neil Naltrexone Implant with an almost one hundred per cent success rate.
It is a major medical breakthrough. The world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies have tried for years to make an implant. Theirs last for 6 weeks while Dr O’Neil’s lasts for up to a year.
"The implants are required by people in Europe, America, in Asia, particularly in Afghanistan and Iran and Egypt and Africa," said Dr O’Neil. "The spread of addiction in Africa has become an enormous problem as well as the spread of aids."
The implant consists of 10 small tablets, made of 50 per cent Naltrexone, 50 per cent biodegradable plastic, which breaks up once it’s inside the patient.
To get it in there once he’s made an incision in the patient’s stomach, it’s simply a matter of inserting the plastic tip and pushing in the tablets with a small plunger. The procedure takes about 20 minutes.
Incredibly, once inside an addict, the slow release of Naltrexone completely blocks the effects of heroin and the chemicals that make us want to smoke or gamble or drink alcohol. They also help reduce cravings in ice addicts
For heroin addicts especially, the effect is remarkable.
"You shoot up and you don’t feel anything, it doesn’t do anything it’s like shooting up water," said Alicia, a 27 year old former heroin addict living in Sydney.
The implant a last chance for Alicia to claim the life she’s never had.
"People would say to me, you’re exactly like your motherâ?¦ you were born in the gutter and you’ll die in the gutter," said Alicia.
Once in Perth, Alicia had no money to pay for the treatment. But then most of Dr O’Neil’s patients cannot pay. Desperate and penniless they come from all over Australia and the world.
"Well I actually first came over in June of last year to get a Naltrexone implant, from Christchurch, New Zealand," said one of Dr O’Neil’s patients.
"Then you’ve been pretty brave to come that far no matter where you’ve come from so it would be unethical not to offer that person help," explained Dr O’Neil.
"I was actually surprised because I wasn’t expecting it to work as fast as it did or as good as it did but within a day of having it I didn’t want to use anymore," said Alicia.
Five years on Alicia is heroin free and a mother to three year old Joseph and she’s studying first aid and nursing. For George O’Neil and his wife Chris helping people like Alicia is its own reward.
"She’s also a very courageous lady, I have great respect for her," said Chris.
"Alicia knows she doesn’t want that kind of lifestyle for son and she’s coming over here to get herself as healthy as she possibly can so that she will be the best mum for that boy, and she will be."
The O’Neil’s efforts have been well-supported by the state government in Western Australia.
"Implants are now, I think, from all the anecdotal feedback I’m getting, working tremendously, particularly with a number of hardcore long-term addicts," said WA Health Minister Jim McGinty. He describes George is an Australian hero and says his implants may also be the answer to the ice epidemic.
"George has found a way for people with a serious amphetamine addiction to minimise the cravings, the need that they have for their drug," said Mr McGinty.
The WA Government has given $1 million a year for the last six years to help keep George’s Perth clinic going. Studies show it to be most cost effective way to treat addicts at between three and five thousand dollars per patient. That would save tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars they would otherwise cost the community in crime and treatment.
"I think it’s time we saw from other people, particularly the federal government, a bit more than platitudes a bit more than nice words I think it’s time we saw a few dollars going in order to give some real substance to helping people with a drug addiction," Mr McGinty said.
In addiction to his clinic, Dr O’Neil runs more than a dozen houses for recovering addicts to stay in along with a 200 bed hospital on the outskirts of Perth. He offers full service recovery, including therapy, to back up his Naltrexone implants.
That’s why Alicia has moved with her son Joseph to Perth.
"In a year I’ll be probably be going back to Tafe, I’ll still be on the Naltrexone hopefully by then I’ll have my own place, I’ll be supporting myself then," Alicia said.
But it is make or break time for this miracle worker. Dr O’Neil has run out of money.
It costs $5 million a year to operate the Naltrexone clinic. Donations and volunteer workers aren’t enough so George O’Neil is putting his family home on the line.
"I did get confirmation for a loan today, it’s against one of our properties but it’s really to keep the project going and it’s about a five hundred thousand, up to seven hundred thousand dollar loan," said Dr O’Neil.
Asked how they felt about putting their home at risk, the O’Neils simply said: "If we have to sell then we sell and buy something else."
The O’Neil’s have six children and they’re all united behind their father.
"I think it’s shown to be very, very safe and I think it would be wrong not to be using this for people who need to change their lives and are in a place who are ready to change their lives," said daughter Kathleen O’Neil.
Dr O’Neil wants the Federal Government to provide up to $3m per year to maintain services at the Perth Clinic. He adds that won’t help in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane where people would love to run the same service.
Federal health minister Tony Abbott is a long-time believer in Dr O’Neil but that hasn’t translated into cash.
"He’s absolutely passionate about what he’s doing and frankly the world needs people like George O’Neil," said Mr Abbott.
"We’ve been helpful in the past and certainly I will try to be helpful in the future, but in ways which are consistent with what’s possible given the current regulatory state of this kind of treatment."
The Federal Government says it legally cannot fund the implant treatment until the implant is approved by the therapeutic goods administration (TGA).
"I accept that the treatment establishment has a few problems with it," Mr Abbott said.
"There are some research projects going on at the moment which hopefully will validate the Naltrexone program.
Several prominent doctors have criticised treating addicts with the implant, because it has not yet been TGA approved. The federal government is funding the research to get it approved.
"I would be surprised and disappointed if the studies that are currently taking place don’t validate Naltrexone," Mr Abbott said.
Professor Gary Hulse at the University of WA is researching the safety and effectiveness of the implant. His early results confirm it is safe and it works.
"What’s been talked about here is being able to take a medication, put it in a polymer which allows the delivery over a long period of time at the right therapeutic levels, has a huge application to a variety of areas for analgesic release, for treatment of cancers," said Professor Hulse.
For cancer patients and diabetics, the applications are potentially worth billions of dollars.
"I think that often we find some of the greatest advances that have been made have been made by these people who are willing to push the boundaries," Professor Hulse said.
Dr O’Neil is pushing. He’s trying to get his implant fully approved by himself rather than let a big pharmaceutical company do it. That way he can keep it non-profit so that everyone who needs an implant can get it, not just those who can afford to pay top dollar.
George O’Neil’s addiction to helping others has meant working 100 hours a week. And at the age of 58, he’s still prepared to sacrifice it all.
"I’ve never known anyone to be turned away," said Chris O’Neil.
George adds, "They’re Australian citizens and they’ve got no money and we’ve got the technology to treat them and they’re saying they want to be treated and so we’re saying how could you not treat them?"
If you would like more information on Dr George O’Neil’s Naltrexone Implant, or you would like a make a donation, see the contact details below.
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The O’Neil Naltrexone Implant
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