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Genetic test aims to identify people at risk for opioid addiction

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A California biotech company is hoping to take on the nation’s opioid epidemic with a DNA test that it says can identify patients who are genetically predisposed to becoming addicted to painkillers.

Proove Bioscience, in Irvine, California, has developed a cheek-swab DNA test that, coupled with a questionnaire, identifies a person’s risk of becoming addicted, reports CBS Los Angeles.

Nearly 2 million people were addicted to pain medication in 2014, and close to 19,000 died from painkiller overdoses, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

That year, more people died from drug overdoses than ever before, and six out of ten of those deaths involved opioids, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In many areas, the opioid drug crisis continues to grow.

Opioid addiction commonly begins in the doctor’s office, when physicians write prescriptions for patients, recent reports suggest. Patients predisposed to addiction do not know they’re more at risk until it’s too late.

CBS Los Angeles spoke with a patient who underwent the test at a recent doctor’s appointment. When Su Henriquez received the results, she learned that she has a low pain tolerance and is at moderate risk of becoming dependent on opioids.

The findings were troubling to Henriquez, who watched her mother’s dependence on pain medication grow over time.

“This is so important to me,” she said. “This is the meaning of the rest of my life.”

Henriquez’s doctor, orthopedic spine surgeon Hooman Melamed, is one of about 300 doctors offering the Proove test in the United States.

“You’re already at high risk to begin with, which means you can go down the wrong pathway very quickly,” he told Henriquez.

Proove CEO Brian Meshkin told The Daily Beast he is hoping to make such doctor-patient interactions more common.

“We can imagine a day where a doctor will prescribe a medication actually knowing whether a patient is going to respond or not, rather than just guessing,” Meshkin said. 

He claims the test has about a 93 percent accuracy rate, but those results have not been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Dr. Richard Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical School, told The Daily Beast that the company’s claims “cannot be taken seriously by scientists, clinicians, and, most importantly, the public,” until they are peer-reviewed. 

“The history of predictive biomarkers is a bit like the search for the Holy Grail,” he told the news site. “They promise a lot, but in the end provide little advantage over what clinicians do in everyday practice: take a careful history of the symptoms and treatment response.” 

Meshkin told The Daily Beast that Proove plans to publish its research in the coming months.