NIH announces research plan for opioid addiction initiative

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) revealed the research plan for its Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) initiative in a June 12 article published in the online version of the Journal of the American Medical Association.  

In the publication, NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, Walter Koroshetz, MD, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, discussed the role of the program in addressing the national opioid crisis.

“Now is the time to channel the efforts of the scientific community to deliver effective—and sustainable—solutions to this formidable public health challenge,” they wrote.

The NIH innovative and action-oriented research plan will focus on two primary areas: improving treatments for opioid misuse and addiction and enhancing strategies for pain management. According to NIH officials, this includes expanding therapeutic options for opioid addiction, overdose prevention and reversal; enhancing treatments for infants born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS)/Neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWs); and optimizing effective treatment strategies for opioid addiction.

Efforts will also focus on understanding the biological underpinnings of chronic pain, accelerating the discovery and pre-clinical development of non-addictive pain treatment; and advancing new non-addictive pain treatments through the clinical pipeline.

Congress added $500 million to the base appropriation of the NIH starting in fiscal year 2018 to support the HEAL initiative.

More than 25 million U.S. adults are affected by daily pain and 2 million individuals in the United States have an opioid use disorder (OUD), according to Collins. The majority start with opioid analgesics prescribed to them or procured from diverted medications, but once addicted, often shifting to illicit heroin or synthetic opioids.

“The scope of this crisis is staggering, but scientific advances offer strategies that can help the nation overcome it,” they wrote.

The HEAL initiative was established to build on NIH research, including basic science of the complex neurological pathways involved in pain and addiction, implementation science to develop and test treatment models, and research to integrate behavioral interventions with Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) for OUD. Successes from this research include evidence for the use of nondrug and mind/body techniques such as yoga, tai chi, acupuncture, and mindfulness meditation to help patients control and manage pain.