By delivering a low but continuous dose of the medication, the implant is designed to reduce the risk that patients addicted to opiates will relapse after missing doses or simply stop the treatment altogether.
"In summary, this study found that the use of buprenorphine implants compared with placebo resulted in less opioid use over 16 weeks and also across the full 24 weeks," the news release accompanying the study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The United States National Institute on Drug Abuse states that the best way to address opioid addiction is through a combined intervention involving both behavioral and pharmacological treatments.
The study involved 163 adults between the ages of 18 and 65 diagnosed as opioid-dependent between 2007 and 2008.
Four buprenorphine delivery devices were implanted under the skin of one arm in 108 patients. Each device was set to slowly release 80 milligrams of medication. The other 55 patients received placebo implants. None of the patients involved received buprenorphine by the standard oral delivery route.
Urine samples over the 16 weeks of treatment revealed that patients treated with the implants were far less likely to test positive for illicit opioid use than the others.
Dr. John Mariani, director of the substance treatment and research service at New York State Psychiatric Institute/Columbia University in New York City, was ambivalent about the innovation.
"… The vast majority of patients I treat like the effect of oral buprenorphine and they don't tend to stop taking it, because then they start to experience withdrawal," he told HealthDay News.
As for the implant: "Although it's not the most invasive procedure to have, it is a surgical approach and there's always the risk of infection, and then scarring if and when it has to be removed," he said. "And you can't individualize the dose, which is very easy to do with the oral drug."
"It [the implant system] adds something to our options, but I don't think it will be an approach most people will choose."