From the Journals

NIH launches HEAL Initiative to combat opioid crisis



Better treatments for opioid addiction and enhanced approaches to pain management headline a new effort to address the opioid crisis lead by the National Institutes of Health.

The NIH HEAL (Helping to End Addiction Long-term) Initiative aims to bring together agencies across the federal government, as well as academic institutions, private industry, and patient advocates to find new solutions to address the current national health emergency.

“There are 15 initiatives altogether that are being put out that we think are pretty bold and should make a big difference in our understanding of what to do about this national public health crisis,” NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, said in an interview.

HEAL will investigate ways to reformulate existing treatments for opioid use disorder (OUD), to improve efficacy and extend their availability to more patients.

“Although there are effective medications for OUD (methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone), only a small percentage of individuals in the United States who would benefit receive these medications,” according to an editorial introducing the NIH HEAL Initiative published in JAMA (doi:10.1001/jama.2018.8826). “Even among those who have initiated these medications, about half will relapse within 6 months.”

The editorial was authored by Dr. Collins, Walter J. Koroshetz, MD, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

For example, the current formulation of naltrexone lasts about a month within the body, Dr. Collins said in an interview. “If we had a 6-month version of that, I think it would be much more effective because oftentimes the relapses happen after a month or so, before people have fully gotten themselves on the ground.”

Better overdose antidotes are needed as well, he said, particularly for fentanyl overdose. “Narcan may not be strong enough for those long-lasting and very potent opioids like fentanyl,” he said.

HEAL also will seek a better understanding of neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS), also referred to as neonatal abstinence syndrome, which has become alarmingly common as more women of childbearing potential struggle with opioid addiction.

“Innovative methods to identify and treat newborns exposed to opioids, often along with other drugs, have the potential to improve both short- and long-term developmental outcomes in such children,” Dr. Collins and colleagues noted. “To determine better approaches, HEAL will expand Advancing Clinical Trials in Neonatal Opioid Withdrawal Syndrome (ACT NOW). This pilot study is designed to assess the prevalence of NOWS, understand current approaches to managing NOWS , and develop common approaches for larger-scale studies that will determine best practices for clinical care of infants with NOWS throughout the country.”

HEAL efforts also seek to find integrated approaches to OUD treatment.

“One particularly bold element is to put together a number of pilot projects that enable bringing together all of the ways in which we are trying to turn this epidemic around by making it possible to assess whether individuals who are addicted can be successfully treated and maintained in abstinence for long periods of time,” Dr. Collins said. “Right now, the success is not so great.

“Suppose we brought together all of the treatment programs – the primary care facilities, the emergency rooms, the fire departments, the social work experts, the health departments in the states, the local communities, the criminal justice system. We brought together all of those players in a research design where we can really see what was working. Could we do a lot more to turn this around than basically doing one of those at a time? There is this multisite idea of a national research effort, still somewhat in development, but to do integration of all of these efforts. I am pretty excited about that one.”

In looking for better ways to treat pain safely and effectively, “we need to understand how it is that people transition from acute pain to chronic pain … and what can we do increase the likelihood of recovery from acute pain without making that transition,” Dr. Collins said. “Then we need to identify additional novel targets for developing pain therapies, both devices and pharmaceuticals. We need better means of testing those ideas.”

In addition to gaining a better understanding of chronic pain, HEAL aims to investigate new nonaddictive pain treatments and find ways to expedite those treatments through the clinical pipeline, according to Dr. Collins and colleagues.

HEAL “lays the foundation for an innovative therapy-development pipeline through a planned new public-private partnership. In collaboration with biopharmaceutical groups, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Foundation for the NIH, the NIH will collect and evaluate treatment assets from academia and biopharmaceutical and device companies to coordinate and accelerate the development of effective treatments for pain and addiction,” they wrote.

[email protected]

SOURCE: Collins F et al, JAMA doi: 10.1001/jama.2018.8826.

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