New Initiative to Stem Opioid Crisis: NIH HEAL Initiative

New Initiative to Stem Opioid Crisis: NIH HEAL Initiative

On April 5, 2018 National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., announced the launch of the HEAL (Helping to End Addiction Long-term) Initiative. This is an aggressive, trans-agency effort to speed scientific solutions to stem the national opioid public health crisis. Toward this effort, NIH is nearly doubling funding for research on opioid misuse/addiction and pain from approximately $600 million in fiscal year 2016 to $1.1 billion in fiscal year 2018, made possible from a funding boost by Congress.

“Every day, more than 115 Americans die after overdosing on opioids,” said Dr. Collins. “That is a four-fold increase since 2000, and the numbers continue to climb. NIH has been deeply invested in efforts to counter this crisis through research, but we are determined to do even more. Over the last year, NIH has worked with stakeholders and experts across scientific disciplines and sectors to identify areas of opportunity for research to combat the opioid crisis. The focus of these discussions has centered on ways to reduce the over prescription of opioids, accelerate development of effective non-opioid therapies for pain, and provide more flexible options for treating opioid addiction. NIH is committed to bringing the full power of the biomedical research enterprise to bear on this crisis.”

HEAL will bolster research across the NIH to:

  • Prevent Addiction through Enhanced Pain Management; and
  • Improve Treatments for Opioid Misuse Disorder and Addiction

One strategy will use technologies developed through the NIH BRAIN Initiative and SPARC program to identify potential new targets for treatment of chronic pain and objective biomarkers to predict which individuals will respond to a treatment.

Another strategy expands therapeutic options for treating addiction, including extending the options for Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT) and overdose reversal treatments. The plan is to develop immunotherapies that enlist the immune system to block entry of heroin or synthetic opioids to the brain to prevent overdose or relapse for individuals at high risk for addiction. Comparison of already proven MAT in combination with other nondrug approaches such as cognitive therapy and meditation will also be utilized.

HEAL will also work with federal and state partners in pilot demonstration projects to test the integration of multiple addiction prevention and treatment options in healthcare and criminal justice settings in states with the highest rates of opioid misuse and overdose to inform evidence-based practice.

The NIH HEAL Initiative will build on extensive, well-established NIH research that has led to successes such as the development of the nasal form of naloxone, the most commonly used nasal spray for reversing an opioid overdose; the development of buprenorphine for the treatment of opioid use disorder; and the use of nondrug and mind/body techniques to help patients control and manage pain, such as yoga, tai chi, acupuncture, and mindfulness meditation. The Initiative will tap into the expertise of the NIH Pain Consortium, which was established to enhance collaboration among NIH institutes, centers and offices that conduct pain research.

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