With ~$52M in funding from NIH HEAL Initiative, Gillings School researchers join fight against national opioid crisis

October 1, 2019

To reverse the opioid crisis that continues to grip the United States, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded $945 million in funding across 41 states through the Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative. This aggressive research effort aims to improve treatments for chronic pain, curb the rates of opioid use disorder and overdose, and achieve long-term recovery from opioid addiction.

Researchers at the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health are leading one of the 375 grant awards that, together, make up the NIH HEAL Initiative.

Dr. Lisa LaVange

Dr. Lisa LaVange

Lisa LaVange, PhD, professor and associate chair in the Gillings School’s Department of Biostatistics, is principal investigator for the $51.781 million “Back Pain Consortium (BACPAC) Research Program Data Integration, Algorithm Development and Operations Management Center (DAC).”

The BACPAC research program is a translational, patient-centered effort to address the need for effective and personalized therapies for chronic low back pain — one of the most common forms of chronic pain among adults worldwide. Current treatment options are ineffective, which has led to an increased use of opioids. The HEAL initiative includes 13 grants totaling approximately $150 million for BACPAC.

“We are very excited to be selected as the DAC for the BACPAC research program,” said LaVange, who also is director of UNC’s Collaborative Studies Coordinating Center. “As part of this important initiative, we will work with mechanistic research centers, technology research sites and phase 2 clinical trial groups to deliver an integrated model of chronic lower back pain and explore innovative technologies. Our team includes experts from the Gillings School, the UNC School of Medicine and UNC’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, and the investigators represent several different academic departments across campus.”

Dr. Anastasia Ivanova

Dr. Anastasia Ivanova

The project period runs September 26, 2019, through May 31, 2024. Anastasia Ivanova, PhD, professor of biostatistics at the Gillings School, is the co-principal investigator.

“It’s clear that a multi-pronged scientific approach is needed to reduce the risks of opioids, accelerate development of effective non-opioid therapies for pain, and provide more flexible and effective options for treating addiction to opioids,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD, who launched the initiative in early 2018. “This unprecedented investment in the NIH HEAL Initiative demonstrates the commitment to reversing this devastating crisis.”

In 2016, an estimated 50 million U.S. adults suffered from chronic pain and, in 2018, an estimated 10.3 million people 12 years and older in the United States misused opioids, including heroin.

Learn more about the NIH HEAL Initiative programs and awards and the opioid crisis.

Additional BACPAC DAC co-investigators from UNC include:

  • Michael Kosorok, PhD (W.R. Kenan Jr. professor and chair in the Gillings School’s Department of Biostatistics; professor in the Department of Statistics and Operations Research)
  • Matthew Psioda, PhD (assistant professor of biostatistics at UNC Gillings)
  • Naim Rashid, PhD (assistant professor of biostatistics at UNC Gillings; research assistant professor at Lineberger)
  • Yun Li, PhD (associate professor of biostatistics at UNC Gillings; associate professor in the Department of Genetics; adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science)
  • Tim Carey, MD, MPH (Sarah Graham Kenan professor of medicine in the Departments of Medicine and Social Medicine; adjunct professor of epidemiology at UNC Gillings)
  • Timothy Platts-Mills, MD, MSc (associate professor, vice-chair of research and co-director of Geriatric Emergency Medicine at UNC’s School of Medicine)
  • Samuel McLean, MD (associate professor and director of the Tryumph Research Program at UNC’s School of Medicine)
  • Saianand Balu, MSIS (director of informatics at Lineberger)

The National Institutes of Health, the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research, and investigates the causes, treatments and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.


Contact the Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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