Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
While great progress has been made in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, America’s opioid crisis continues to evolve in unexpected ways. The opioid crisis, which worsened during the pandemic and now involves the scourge of fentanyl, claims more than 70,000 lives each year in the United States . But throughout the pandemic, NIH has continued its research efforts to help people with a substance use disorder find the help that they so need. These efforts include helping to find relief for the millions of Americans who live with severe and chronic pain.
Recently, I traveled to Atlanta for the Rx and Illicit Drug Summit 2022. While there, I moderated an evening fireside chat with two of NIH’s leaders in combating the opioid crisis: Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA); and Rebecca Baker, director of Helping to End Addiction Long-term® (HEAL) initiative. What follows is an edited, condensed transcript of our conversation.
Tabak: Let’s start with Nora. When did the opioid crisis begin, and how has it changed over the years
Volkow: It started just before the year 2000 with the over-prescription of opioid medications. People were becoming addicted to them, many from diverted product. By 2010, CDC developed guidelines that decreased the over-prescription. But then, we saw a surge in heroin use. That turned the opioid crisis into two problems: prescription opioids and heroin.
In 2016, we encountered the worst scourge yet. It is fentanyl, an opioid that’s 50 times more potent than heroin. Fentanyl is easily manufactured, and it’s easier than other opioids to hide and transport across the border. That makes this drug very profitable.
What we have seen during the pandemic is the expansion of fentanyl use in the United States. Initially, fentanyl made its way to the Northeast; now it’s everywhere. Initially, it was used to contaminate heroin; now it’s used to contaminate cocaine, methamphetamine, and, most recently, illicit prescription drugs, such as benzodiazepines and stimulants. With fentanyl contaminating all these drugs, we’re also seeing a steep rise in mortality from cocaine and methamphetamine use in African Americans, American Indians, and Alaska natives.
Tabak: What about teens? A recent study in the journal JAMA reported for the first time in a decade that overdose deaths among U.S. teens rose dramatically in 2020 and kept rising through 2021 . Is fentanyl behind this alarming increase?
Volkow: Yes, and it has us very concerned. The increase also surprised us. Over the past decade, we have seen a consistent decrease in adolescent drug use. In fact, there are some drugs that have the lowest usage rates that we’ve ever recorded. To observe this more than doubling of overdose deaths from fentanyl before the COVID pandemic was a major surprise.
Adolescents don’t typically use heroin, nor do they seek out fentanyl. Our fear is adolescents are misusing illicit prescriptions contaminated with fentanyl. Because an estimated 30-40 percent of those tainted pills contain levels of fentanyl that can kill you, it becomes a game of Russian roulette. This dangerous game is being played by adolescents who may just be experimenting with illicit pills.
Tabak: For people with substance use disorders, there are new ways to get help. In fact, one of the very few positive outcomes of the pandemic is the emergence of telehealth. If we can learn to navigate the various regulatory issues, do you see a place for telehealth going forward?
Volkow: When you have a crisis like this one, there’s a real need to accelerate interventions and innovation like telehealth. It certainly existed before the pandemic, and we knew that telehealth was beneficial for the treatment of substance use disorders. But it was very difficult to get reimbursement, making access extremely limited.
When COVID overwhelmed emergency departments, people with substance use disorders could no longer get help there. Other interventions were needed, and telehealth helped fill the void. It also had the advantage of reaching rural populations in states such as Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, where easy access to treatment or unique interventions can be challenging. In many prisons and jails, administrators worried about bringing web-based technologies into their facilities. So, in partnership with the Justice Department, we have created networks that now will enable the entry of telehealth into jails and prisons.
Tabak: Rebecca, it’s been four years since the HEAL initiative was announced at this very summit in 2018. How is the initiative addressing this ever-evolving crisis?
Baker: We’ve launched over 600 research projects across the country at institutions, hospitals, and research centers in a broad range of scientific areas. We’re working to come up with new treatment options for pain and addiction. There’s exciting research underway to address the craving and sleep disruption caused by opioid withdrawal. This research has led to over 20 investigational new drug applications to the FDA. Some are for repurposed drugs, compounds that have already been shown to be safe and effective for treating other health conditions that may also have value for treating addiction. Some are completely novel. We have also initiated the first testing of an opioid vaccine, for oxycodone, to prevent relapse and overdose in high-risk individuals.
Tabak: What about clinical research?
Baker: We’re testing multiple different treatments for both pain and addiction. Not everyone with pain is the same, and not every treatment is going to work the same for everyone. We’re conducting clinical trials in real-world settings to find out what works best for patients. We’re also working to implement lifesaving, evidence-based interventions into places where people seek help, including faith, community, and criminal justice settings.
Tabak: The pandemic highlighted inequities in our health-care system. These inequities afflict individuals and populations who are struggling with addiction and overdose. Nora, what needs to be done to address the social determinants of racial disparities?
Volkow: This is an extraordinarily important question. As you noted, certain racial and ethnic groups had disproportionately higher mortality rates from COVID. We have seen the same with overdose deaths. For example, we know that the most important intervention for preventing overdoses is to initiate medications such as methadone, buprenorphine or vivitrol. But Black Americans are initiated on these medications at least five years later than white Americans. Similarly, Black Americans also are less likely to receive the overdose-reversal medication naloxone.
That’s not right. We must ask what are the core causes of limited access to high-quality health care? Low income is a major contributing factor. Helping people get an education is one of the most important factors to address it. Another factor is distrust of the medical system. When racial and ethnic discrimination is compounded by discrimination because a person has a substance use disorder, you can see why it becomes very difficult for some to seek help. As a society, we certainly need to address racial discrimination. But we also need to address discrimination against substance use disorders in people of all races who are vulnerable.
Baker: Our research is tackling these barriers head on with a direct focus on stigma. As Nora alluded to, oftentimes providers may not offer lifesaving medication to some patients, and we’ve developed and are testing research training to help providers recognize and address their own biases and behaviors in caring for different populations.
We have supported research on the drivers of equity. A big part of this is engaging with people with lived experience and making sure that the interventions being designed are feasible in the real world. Not everyone has access to health insurance, transportation, childcare—the support that they may need to sustain treatment and recovery. In short, our research is seeking ways to enhance linkage to treatment.
Nora mentioned the importance of telehealth in improving equity. That’s another research focus, as well as developing tailored, culturally appropriate interventions for addressing pain and addiction. When you have this trust issue, you can’t always go in with a prescription or a recommendation from a physician. So in American and Alaskan native communities, we’re integrating evidence-based prevention approaches with traditional practices like wellness gatherings, cooking together, use of sage and spirituality, along with community support, and seeing if that encourages and increases the uptake of these prevention approaches in communities that need it so much.
Tabak: The most heartbreaking impact of the opioid crisis has been the infants born dependent on opioids. Rebecca, what’s being done to help the very youngest victims of the opioid crisis born with neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome, or NOWS?
Baker: Thanks for asking about the infants. Babies with NOWS undergo withdrawal at birth and cry inconsolably, often with extreme stomach upset and sometimes even with seizures. Our research found that hospitals across the country vary greatly in how they treat these babies. Our program, ACT NOW, or Advancing Clinical Trials in Neonatal Opioid Withdrawal, aims to provide concrete guidance for nurses in the NICU treating these infants. One of the studies that we call Eat, Sleep, Console focuses on the abilities of the baby. Our researchers are testing if the ability to eat, sleep, or be consoled increases bonding with the mother and if it reduces time in the hospital, as well as other long-term health outcomes.
In addition to that NOWS program, we’ve also launched the HEALthy Brain and Child Development Study, or HBCD, that seeks to understand the long-term consequences of opioid exposure together with all the other environmental and other factors the baby experiences as they grow up. The hope is that together these studies will inform future prevention and treatment efforts for both mental health and also substance use and addiction.
Tabak: As the surge in heroin use and appearance of fentanyl has taught us, the opioid crisis has ever-changing dynamics. It tells us that we need better prevention strategies. Rebecca, could you share what HEAL is doing about prevention?
Baker: Prevention has always been a core component of the HEAL Initiative in a number of ways. The first is by preventing unnecessary opioid exposures through enhanced and evidence-based pain management. HEAL is supporting research on new small molecules, new devices, new biologic therapeutics that could treat pain and distinct pain conditions without opioids. And we’re also researching and providing guidance for clinicians on strategies for managing pain without medication, including acupuncture and physical therapy. They can often be just as effective and more sustainable.
HEAL is also working to address risky opioid use outside of pain management, especially in high-risk groups. That includes teens and young adults who may be experimenting, people lacking stable housing, patients who are on high-dose opioids for pain management, or they maybe have gone off high-dose opioids but still have them in their possession.
Finally, to prevent overdose we have to give naloxone to the people who need it. The HEALing Communities Study has taken some really innovative approaches to providing naloxone in libraries, on the beach, and places where overdoses are actually happening, not just in medical settings. And I think that will be, in our fight against the overdose crisis, a key tool.
Volkow: Larry, I’d like to add a few words on prevention. There are evidence-based interventions that have been shown to be quite effective for preventing substance use among teenagers and young adults. And yet, they are not implemented. We have evidence-based interventions that work for prevention. We have evidence-based interventions that work for treatment. But we don’t provide the resources for their implementation, nor do we train the personnel that can carry it over.
Science can give us tools, but if we do not partner at the next level for their implementation, those tools do not have the impact they should have. That’s why I always bring up the importance of policy in the implementation phase.
Tabak: Rebecca, the opioid crisis got started with a lack of good options for treating pain. Could you share with us how HEAL’s research efforts are addressing the needs of millions of Americans who experience both chronic pain and opioid use disorder?
Baker: It’s so important to remember people with pain. We can’t let our efforts to combat the opioid crisis make us lose sight of the needs of the millions of Americans with pain. One hundred million Americans experience pain; half of them have severe pain, daily pain, and 20 million have such severe pain that they can’t do things that are important to them in their life, family, job, other activities that bring their life meaning.
HEAL recognizes that these individuals need better options. New non-addictive pain treatments. But as you say, there is a special need for people with a substance use disorder who also have pain. They desperately need new and better options. And so we recently, through the HEAL Initiative, launched a new trials network that couples medication-based treatment for opioid use disorders, so that’s methadone or buprenorphine, with new pain-management strategies such as psychotherapy or yoga in the opioid use disorder treatment setting so that you’re not sending them around to lots of different places. And our hope is that this integrated approach will address some of the fragmented healthcare challenges that often results in poor care for these patients.
My last point would be that some patients need opioids to function. We can’t forget as we make sure that we are limiting risky opioid use that we don’t take away necessary opioids for these patients, and so our future research will incorporate ways of making sure that they receive needed treatment while also preventing them from the risks of opioid use disorder.
Tabak: Rebecca, let me ask you one more question. What do you want the folks here to remember about HEAL?
Baker: HEAL stands for Helping to End Addiction Long-term, and nobody knows more than the people in this room how challenging and important that really is. We’ve heard a little bit about the great promise of our research and some of the advances that are coming through our research pipeline, new treatments, new guidance for clinicians and caregivers. I want everyone to know that we want to work with you. By working together, I’m confident that we will tailor these new advances to meet the individual needs of the patients and populations that we serve.
Tabak: Nora, what would you like to add?
Volkow: This afternoon, I met with two parents who told me the story of how they lost their daughter to an overdose. They showed me pictures of this fantastic girl, along with her drawings. Whenever we think about overdose deaths in America, the sheer number—75,000—can make us indifferent. But when you can focus on one person and feel the love surrounding that life, you remember the value of this work.
Like in COVID, substance use disorders are a painful problem that we’re all experiencing in some way. They may have upset our lives. But they may have brought us together and, in many instances, brought out the best that humans can do. The best, to me, is caring for one another and taking the responsibility of helping those that are most vulnerable. I believe that science has a purpose. And here we have a purpose: to use science to bring solutions that can prevent and treat those suffering from substance use disorders.
Tabak: Thanks to both of you for this enlightening conversation.
 Drug overdose deaths, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, February 22, 2022.
 Trends in drug overdose deaths among US adolescents, January 2010 to June 2021. Friedman J. et al. JAMA. 2022 Apr 12;327(14):1398-1400.
Video: Evening Plenary with NIH’s Lawrence Tabak, Nora Volkow, and Rebecca Baker (Rx and Illicit Drug Summit 2022)
SAMHSA’s National Helpline (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD)
Opioids (National Institute on Drug Abuse/NIH)
Rebecca Baker (HEAL/NIH)
Nora Volkow (NIDA)
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Last week was a big one for both NIH and me. Not only did I announce my plans to step down as NIH Director by year’s end to return to my lab full-time, I was reminded by the announcement of the 2021 Nobel Prizes of what an honor it is to be affiliated an institution with such a strong, sustained commitment to supporting basic science.
This year, NIH’s Nobel excitement started in the early morning hours of October 4, when two NIH-supported neuroscientists in California received word from Sweden that they had won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. One “wake up” call went to David Julius, University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), who was recognized for his groundbreaking discovery of the first protein receptor that controls thermosensation, the body’s perception of temperature. The other went to his long-time collaborator, Ardem Patapoutian, Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA, for his seminal work that identified the first protein receptor that controls our sense of touch.
But the good news didn’t stop there. On October 6, the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to NIH-funded chemist David W.C. MacMillan of Princeton University, N.J., who shared the honor with Benjamin List of Germany’s Max Planck Institute. (List also received NIH support early in his career.)
The two researchers were recognized for developing an ingenious tool that enables the cost-efficient construction of “greener” molecules with broad applications across science and industry—including for drug design and development.
Then, to turn this into a true 2021 Nobel Prize “hat trick” for NIH, we learned on October 12 that two of this year’s three Nobel winners in Economic Sciences had been funded by NIH. David Card, an NIH-supported researcher at University of California, Berkley, was recognized “for his empirical contributions to labor economics.” He shared the 2021 prize with NIH grantee Joshua Angrist of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, and his colleague Guido Imbens of Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, “for their methodological contributions to the analysis of causal relationships.” What a year!
The achievements of these and NIH’s 163 past Nobel Prize winners stand as a testament to the importance of our agency’s long and robust history of investing in basic biomedical research. In this area of research, scientists ask fundamental questions about how life works. The answers they uncover help us to understand the principles, mechanisms, and processes that underlie living organisms, including the human body in sickness and health.
What’s more, each advance builds upon past discoveries, often in unexpected ways and sometimes taking years or even decades before they can be translated into practical results. Recent examples of life-saving breakthroughs that have been built upon years of fundamental biomedical research include the mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 and the immunotherapy approaches now helping people with many types of cancer.
Take the case of the latest Nobels. Fundamental questions about how the human body responds to medicinal plants were the initial inspiration behind the work of UCSF’s Julius. He’d noticed that studies from Hungary found that a natural chemical in chili peppers, called capsaicin, activated a subgroup of neurons to create the painful, burning sensation that most of us have encountered from having a bit too much hot sauce. But what wasn’t known was the molecular mechanism by which capsaicin triggered that sensation.
In 1997, having settled on the best experimental approach to study this question, Julius and colleagues screened millions of DNA fragments corresponding to genes expressed in the sensory neurons that were known to interact with capsaicin. In a matter of weeks, they had pinpointed the gene encoding the protein receptor through which capsaicin interacts with those neurons . Julius and team then determined in follow-up studies that the receptor, later named TRPV1, also acts as a thermal sensor on certain neurons in the peripheral nervous system. When capsaicin raises the temperature to a painful range, the receptor opens a pore-like ion channel in the neuron that then transmit a signal for the unpleasant sensation on to the brain.
In collaboration with Patapoutian, Julius then turned his attention from hot to cold. The two used the chilling sensation of the active chemical in mint, menthol, to identify a protein called TRPM8, the first receptor that senses cold [2, 3]. Additional pore-like channels related to TRPV1 and TRPM8 were identified and found to be activated by a range of different temperatures.
Taken together, these breakthrough discoveries have opened the door for researchers around the world to study in greater detail how our nervous system detects the often-painful stimuli of hot and cold. Such information may well prove valuable in the ongoing quest to develop new, non-addictive treatments for pain. The NIH is actively pursuing some of those avenues through its Helping to End Addiction Long-termSM (HEAL) Initiative.
Meanwhile, Patapoutian was busy cracking the molecular basis of another basic sense: touch. First, Patapoutian and his collaborators identified a mouse cell line that produced a measurable electric signal when individual cells were poked. They had a hunch that the electrical signal was generated by a protein receptor that was activated by physical pressure, but they still had to identify the receptor and the gene that coded for it. The team screened 71 candidate genes with no luck. Then, on their 72nd try, they identified a touch receptor-coding gene, which they named Piezo1, after the Greek word for pressure .
Patapoutian’s group has since found other Piezo receptors. As often happens in basic research, their findings have taken them in directions they never imagined. For example, they have discovered that Piezo receptors are involved in controlling blood pressure and sensing whether the bladder is full. Fascinatingly, these receptors also seem to play a role in controlling iron levels in red blood cells, as well as controlling the actions of certain white blood cells, called macrophages.
Turning now to the 2021 Nobel in Chemistry, the basic research of MacMillan and List has paved the way for addressing a major unmet need in science and industry: the need for less expensive and more environmentally friendly catalysts. And just what is a catalyst? To build the synthetic molecules used in drugs and a wide range of other materials, chemists rely on catalysts, which are substances that control and accelerate chemical reactions without becoming part of the final product.
It was long thought there were only two major categories of catalysts for organic synthesis: metals and enzymes. But enzymes are large, complex proteins that are hard to scale to industrial processes. And metal catalysts have the potential to be toxic to workers, as well as harmful to the environment. Then, about 20 years ago, List and MacMillan, working independently from each other, created a third type of catalyst. This approach, known as asymmetric organocatalysis [5, 6], builds upon small organic molecule catalysts that have a stable framework of carbon atoms, to which more active chemical groups can attach, often including oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, or phosphorus.
Organocatalysts have gone on to be applied in ways that have proven to be more cost effective and environmentally friendly than using traditional metal or enzyme catalysts. In fact, this precise new tool for molecular construction is now being used to build everything from new pharmaceuticals to light-absorbing molecules used in solar cells.
That brings us to the Nobel Prize in the Economic Sciences. This year’s laureates showed that it’s possible to reach cause-and-effect answers to questions in the social sciences. The key is to evaluate situations in groups of people being treated differently, much like the design of clinical trials in medicine. Using this “natural experiment” approach in the early 1990s, David Card produced novel economic analyses, showing an increase in the minimum wage does not necessarily lead to fewer jobs. In the mid-1990s, Angrist and Imbens then refined the methodology of this approach, showing that precise conclusions can be drawn from natural experiments that establish cause and effect.
Last year, NIH added the names of three scientists to its illustrious roster of Nobel laureates. This year, five more names have been added. Many more will undoubtedly be added in the years and decades ahead. As I’ve said many times over the past 12 years, it’s an extraordinary time to be a biomedical researcher. As I prepare to step down as the Director of this amazing institution, I can assure you that NIH’s future has never been brighter.
 The capsaicin receptor: a heat-activated ion channel in the pain pathway. Caterina MJ, Schumacher MA, Tominaga M, Rosen TA, Levine JD, Julius D. Nature 1997:389:816-824.
 Identification of a cold receptor reveals a general role for TRP channels in thermosensation. McKemy DD, Neuhausser WM, Julius D. Nature 2002:416:52-58.
 A TRP channel that senses cold stimuli and menthol. Peier AM, Moqrich A, Hergarden AC, Reeve AJ, Andersson DA, Story GM, Earley TJ, Dragoni I, McIntyre P, Bevan S, Patapoutian A. Cell 2002:108:705-715.
 Piezo1 and Piezo2 are essential components of distinct mechanically activated cation channels. Coste B, Mathur J, Schmidt M, Earley TJ, Ranade S, Petrus MJ, Dubin AE, Patapoutian A. Science 2010:330: 55-60.
 Proline-catalyzed direct asymmetric aldol reactions. List B, Lerner RA, Barbas CF. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 122, 2395–2396 (2000).
 New strategies for organic catalysis: the first highly enantioselective organocatalytic Diels-AlderReaction. Ahrendt KA, Borths JC, MacMillan DW. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2000, 122, 4243-4244.
Curiosity Creates Cures: The Value and Impact of Basic Research (National Institute of General Medical Sciences/NIH)
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2021 (The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden)
Video: Announcement of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (YouTube)
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021 (The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institutet)
Video: Announcement of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (YouTube)
The Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences (The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institutet)
Video: Announcement of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences (YouTube)
Julius Lab (University of California San Francisco)
The Patapoutian Lab (Scripps Research, La Jolla, CA)
Benjamin List (Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung, Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany)
The MacMillan Group (Princeton University, NJ)
David Card (University of California, Berkeley)
Joshua Angrist (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge)
David Julius: National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research
Ardem Patapoutian: National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke; National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
David W.C. MacMillan: National Institute of General Medical Sciences
David Card: National Institute on Aging; Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
Joshua Angrist: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development