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Opioid Awareness

These Scientific Advances Could be the Solution to the Opioid Overdose Epidemic

The opioid crisis is devastating American families and communities, claiming the lives of more than 91 people in America each day. Last month the Director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins and I announced that we would leverage partnerships between NIH and private industry as well as regulatory agencies to cut the time it takes to develop new treatments in half to help end this crisis. Those include new medications to treat opioid addiction, new overdose-reversal and overdose-prevention tools and effective, safer pain medications.

New and improved medications

In one or two years, we can anticipate new formulations of the existing addiction medications buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone. This includes long-lasting “depot” injections so people who do not live close to a treatment facility can take advantage of these effective medications and better comply with their treatment. Vaccines, which bind to opioids in the bloodstream to prevent them from reaching the brain, are another innovative new tool that will take longer to develop. In addition, NIH remains committed to studying new and effective ways behavioral therapies can support adherence to medications and promote sustained recovery.

Also on the drawing board are new overdose-reversal tools, including stronger and longer-acting formulations of naloxone and other compounds. These can reverse overdoses of powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Other research will focus on the development of wearable devices that can detect an overdose when it is occurring and automatically intervene and signal for help.

Getting funding

Freeing the medical field from its reliance on addictive opioid analgesics is especially urgent, and a combination of publicly and privately funded science will help us achieve this goal. New opioid compounds that block pain without addiction or overdose risk are already being studied. Compounds targeting the body’s other pain-signaling systems, such as the endocannabinoid system, are another promising approach. We have also been funding research into high-frequency repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) and related technologies that could greatly improve quality of life for chronic pain patients without using medications at all.

The opioid crisis may look daunting, but there is much reason for hope. Science will find a solution — probably many solutions — to this crisis. NIH and our industry partners are committed to an “all scientific hands on deck” approach to accelerate this work to prevent overdose deaths, support long term recovery from opioid addiction, and ensure that pain treatment is not a pathway to addiction.

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