Symposium gathers research teams to address opioid addiction, overdose

June 30, 2017

Drug overdoses are among the few causes of death on the rise in the United States, and now kill more people than guns or motor vehicles. From 2014 to 2015 alone, the number of drug deaths in North Carolina increased by 22 percent. More than half of these deaths were attributed to opioids, a class of drugs that includes both illegal substances (such as illicit heroin) and prescription substances (such as morphine, hydrocodone and prescription fentanyl).

Dr. Steve Marshall

Dr. Steve Marshall

At a recent symposium, Steve Marshall, PhD, professor of epidemiology at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, urged some 100 physicians, public health researchers and pharmacists to put their heads together and come up with solutions for what many call the worst drug crisis in American history.

“Think about how much was done to prevent motor vehicle deaths — seat belts, modifications to roads and cars, driver training,” said Marshall, who directs the UNC Injury Prevention Research Center. “We need to build up that kind of commitment to prevent drug overdoses from a research standpoint. If one of us was going to solve this on our own, that would have happened a long time ago. That is why team science is so important.”

Marshall made his comments at “Combating Opioid Addiction and Overdose: Advancing Science and Policy,” a five-hour symposium held Thursday, May 25, in the Blue Cross Blue Shield Auditorium at the UNC Gillings School. The event — which was organized by the Gillings School, the North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences (NC TraCS) Institute, the Injury Prevention Research Center and the Sheps Center for Health Services Research — was explicitly designed to bring together cross-disciplinary researchers to discuss different possibilities for addressing the epidemic.

The day began with an overview of the funding climate by William Compton, MD, from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (part of the National Institutes of Health), and Tamara Haegerich, PhD, from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Haegerich explained that a confluence of factors has given rise to the opioid epidemic, including the existence of an overabundant supply of these “popular” drugs. She emphasized that states with more opioid pain reliever sales tend to have more drug overdose deaths.

Compton’s address underscored the importance of team collaboration science in overcoming the current crisis. He focused on five priority areas: advancing the practice of pain management, expanding the availability and distribution of treatments (like naloxone) for opioid overdoses, expanding access to treatment and recovery services, strengthening public health surveillance and supporting cutting-edge research.

After the introduction, attendees divided into two tracks. In one track, participants learned more about issues relating to the opioid crisis, including ongoing efforts in North Carolina for prevention, advocacy and treatment; transitions from opioid addiction to other health problems; and the biological, clinical, social, and policy-related aspects of the problem.

In the second track, investigators worked in interdisciplinary teams to develop research ideas in the following areas: the importance of big data; community-driven approaches in urban and rural populations; pre-clinical research; clinical research; and the intersection between the opioid epidemic and HIV/hepatitis C.

At the end of the meeting, representatives from each group presented a summary of their work. David Peden, MD, director of team science at NC TraCS, concluded the meeting by offering to help the teams push their ideas forward.

“For those of you who are here looking for research partners or funding mechanisms, our service is very eager to help in that process,” he said. “We can help you make connections, or identify which picture frames you should put around your research ideas. We want to continue this conversation outside the walls of this conference.”

For more information on how scientists can end the opioid epidemic, visit directorsblog.nih.gov.

To access research and resources on the crisis provided by the UNC Injury Prevention Research Center, visit iprc.unc.edu.

This original version of this article was posted by The North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences Institute.


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Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu