NIH HEAL Initiative Meets People Where They Are
Posted on by Rebecca Baker, Ph.D., NIH Helping to End Addiction Long-term® (HEAL) Initiative
The opioid crisis continues to devastate communities across America. Dangerous synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, have flooded the illicit drug supply with terrible consequences. Tragically, based on our most-recent data, about 108,000 people in the U.S. die per year from overdoses of opioids or stimulants . Although this complex public health challenge started from our inability to treat pain effectively, chronic pain remains a life-altering problem for 50 million Americans.
To match the size and complexity of the crisis, in 2018 NIH developed the NIH Helping to End Addiction Long-term® (HEAL) Initiative, an aggressive effort involving nearly all of its 27 institutes and centers. Through more than 1,000 research projects, including basic science, clinical testing of new and repurposed drugs, research with communities, and health equity research, HEAL is dedicated to building a new future built on hope.
In this future:
- A predictive tool used during a health visit personalizes treatment for back pain. The tool estimates the probability that a person will benefit from physical therapy, psychotherapy, or surgery.
- Visits to community health clinics and emergency departments serve as routine opportunities to prevent and treat opioid addiction.
- Qualified school staff and pediatricians screen all children for behavioral and other mental health conditions that increase risk for harmful developmental outcomes, including opioid misuse.
- Infants born exposed to opioids during a mother’s pregnancy receive high-quality care—setting them up for a healthy future.
Five years after getting started (and interrupted by a global pandemic), HEAL research is making progress toward achieving this vision. I’ll highlight three ways in which scientific solutions are meeting people where they are today.
A Window of Opportunity for Treatment in the Justice System
Sadly, jails and prisons are “ground zero” for the nation’s opioid crisis. Eighty-five percent of people who are incarcerated have a substance use disorder or a history of substance use. Our vision at HEAL is that every person in jail, prison, or a court-supervised program receives medical care, which includes effective opioid use disorder treatment.
Some research results already are in supporting this approach: A recent HEAL study learned that individuals who had received addiction treatment while in one Massachusetts jail were about 30 percent less likely to be arrested, arraigned, or incarcerated again compared with those incarcerated during the same time period in a neighboring jail that did not offer treatment . Research from the HEAL-supported Justice Community Opioid Innovation Network also is exploring public perceptions about opioid addiction. One such survey showed that most U.S. adults see opioid use disorder as a treatable medical condition rather than as a criminal matter . That’s hopeful news for the future.
A Personalized Treatment Plan for Chronic Back Pain
Half of American adults live with chronic back pain, a major contributor to opioid use. The HEAL-supported Back Pain Consortium (BACPAC) is creating a whole-system model for comprehensive testing of everything that contributes to chronic low back pain, from anxiety to tissue damage. It also includes comprehensive testing of promising pain-management approaches, including psychotherapy, antidepressants, or surgery.
Refining this whole-system model, which is nearing completion, includes finding computer-friendly ways to describe the relationship between the different elements of pain and treatment. That might include developing mathematical equations that describe the physical movements and connections of the vertebrae, discs, and tendons.
Or it might include an artificial intelligence technique called machine learning, in which a computer looks for patterns in existing data, such as electronic health records or medical images. In keeping with HEAL’s all-hands-on-deck approach, BACPAC also conducts clinical trials to test new (or repurposed) treatments and develop new technologies focused on back pain, like a “wearable muscle” to help support the back.
Harnessing Innovation from the Private Sector
The HEAL research portfolio spans basic science to health services research. That allows us to put many shots on goal that will need to be commercialized to help people. Through its research support of small businesses, HEAL funding offers a make-or-break opportunity to advance a great idea to the marketplace, providing a bridge to venture capital or other larger funding sources needed for commercialization.
This bridge also allows HEAL to invest directly in the heart of innovation. Currently, HEAL funds nearly 100 such companies across 20 states. While this is a relatively small portion of all HEAL research, it is science that will make a difference in our communities, and these researchers are passionate about what they do to build a better future.
A couple of current examples of this research passion include: delivery of controlled amounts of non-opioid pain medications after surgery using a naturally absorbable film or a bone glue; immersive virtual reality to help people with opioid use disorder visualize the consequences of certain personal choices; and mobile apps that support recovery, taking medications, or sensing an overdose.
In 2023, HEAL is making headway toward its mission to accelerate development of safe, non-addictive, and effective strategies to prevent and treat pain, opioid misuse, and overdose. We have 314 clinical trials underway and 41 submissions to the Food and Drug Administration to begin clinical testing of investigational new drugs or devices: That number has doubled in the last year. More than 100 projects alone are addressing back pain, and more than 200 projects are studying medications for opioid use disorder.
The nation’s opioid crisis is profoundly difficult and multifaceted—and it won’t be solved with any single approach. Our research is laser-focused on its vision of ending addiction long-term, including improving pain management and expanding access to underused, but highly effective, addiction medications. Every day, we imagine a better future for people with physical and emotional pain and communities that are hurting. Hundreds of researchers and community members across the country are working to achieve a future where people and communities have the tools they need to thrive.
 Provisional drug overdose death counts. Ahmad FB, Cisewski JA, Rossen LM, Sutton P. National Center for Health Statistics. 2023.
 Recidivism and mortality after in-jail buprenorphine treatment for opioid use disorder. Evans EA, Wilson D, Friedmann PD. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2022 Feb 1;231:109254.
 Social stigma toward persons with opioid use disorder: Results from a nationally representative survey of U.S. adults. Taylor BG, Lamuda PA, Flanagan E, Watts E, Pollack H, Schneider J. Subst Use Misuse. 2021;56(12):1752-1764.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD)
NIH Helping to End Addiction Long-term® (HEAL) Initiative
Video: The NIH HEAL Initiative–HEAL Is Hope
Justice Community Opioid Innovation Network (HEAL)
Back Pain Consortium Research Program (HEAL)
NIH HEAL Initiative 2023 Annual Report (HEAL)
Small Business Programs (HEAL)
Rebecca Baker (HEAL)
Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes, Centers, and Offices to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 28th in the series of NIH guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.
All of Us Research Program Participants Fuel Both Scientific and Personal Discovery
Posted on by Josh Denny, M.D., M.S., All of Us Research Program
The NIH’s All of Us Research Program is a historic effort to create an unprecedented research resource that will speed biomedical breakthroughs, transform medicine and advance health equity. To create this resource, we are enrolling at least 1 million people who reflect the diversity of the United States.
At the program’s outset, we promised to make research a two-way street by returning health information to our participant partners. We are now delivering on that promise. We are returning personalized health-related DNA reports to participants who choose to receive them.
That includes me. I signed up to receive my “Medicine and Your DNA” and “Hereditary Disease Risk” reports along with nearly 200,000 other participant partners. I recently read my results, and they hit home, revealing an eye-opening connection between my personal and professional lives.
First, the professional. Before coming to All of Us, I was a practicing physician and researcher at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, where I studied how a person’s genes might affect his or her response to medications. One of the drug-gene interactions that I found most interesting is related to clopidogrel, a drug commonly prescribed to keep arteries open after a major cardiovascular event, like a heart attack, stroke, or placement of a stent.
People with certain gene variations are not able to process this medication well, leaving them in a potentially risky situation. The patient and their health care provider may think the condition is being managed. But, since they can’t process the medication, the patient’s symptoms and risks are likely to increase.
The impact on patients has been seen in numerous studies, including one that I published with colleagues last year in the Journal of Stroke and Cerebrovascular Disease . We found that stroke risk is three times higher in patients who were poor responders to clopidogrel and treated with the drug following a “mini-stroke”—also known as a transient ischemic attack. Other studies have shown that major cardiovascular events were 50 percent more common in individuals who were poor responders to clopidogrel . Importantly, there are alternative therapies that work well for people with this genetic variant.
Now, the personal. Reading my health-related results, I learned that I carry some of these very same gene variations. So, if I ever needed a medicine to manage my risk of blood clots, clopidogrel would not likely work well for me.
Instead, should I ever need treatment, my provider and I could bypass this common first-line therapy and choose an alternate medicine. Getting the right treatment on the first try could cut my chances of a heart attack in half. The benefits of this knowledge don’t stop with me. By choosing to share my findings with family members who may have inherited the same genetic variations, they can discuss it with their health care teams.
Other program participants who choose to receive results will experience the same process of learning more about their health. Nearly all will get actionable information about how their body may process certain medications. A small percentage, 2 to 3 percent, may learn they’re at higher risk of developing several severe hereditary health conditions, such as certain preventable heart diseases and cancers. The program will provide a genetic counselor at no cost to all participants to discuss their results.
To enroll participants who reflect the country’s diverse population, All of Us partners with trusted community organizations around the country. Inclusion is vitally important in the field of genomics research, where available data have long originated mostly from people of European ancestry. In contrast, about 50 percent of the All of Us’ genomic data come from individuals who self-identify with a racial or ethnic minority group.
More than 3,600 research projects are already underway using data contributed by participants from diverse backgrounds. What’s especially exciting about this “ecosystem” of discovery between participants and researchers is that, by contributing their data, participants are helping researchers decode what our DNA is telling us about health across all types of conditions. In turn, those discoveries will deepen what participants can learn.
Those who have stepped up to join All of Us are the heartbeat of this historic research effort to advance personalized approaches in medicine. Their contributions are already fueling new discoveries in numerous areas of health.
At the same time, making good on our promises to our participant partners ensures that the knowledge gained doesn’t only accumulate in a database but is delivered back to participants to help advance their own health journeys. If you’re interested in joining All of Us, we welcome you to learn more.
 CYP2C19 loss-of-function is associated with increased risk of ischemic stroke after transient ischemic attack in intracranial atherosclerotic disease. Patel PD, Vimalathas P, Niu X, Shannon CN, Denny JC, Peterson JF, Chitale RV, Fusco MR. J Stroke Cerebrovasc Dis. 2021 Feb;30(2):105464.
 Predicting clopidogrel response using DNA samples linked to an electronic health record. Delaney JT, Ramirez AH, Bowton E, Pulley JM, Basford MA, Schildcrout JS, Shi Y, Zink R, Oetjens M, Xu H, Cleator JH, Jahangir E, Ritchie MD, Masys DR, Roden DM, Crawford DC, Denny JC. Clin Pharmacol Ther. 2012 Feb;91(2):257-263.
Join All of Us (All of Us/NIH)
NIH’s All of Us Research Program returns genetic health-related results to participants, NIH News Release, December 13, 2022.
NIH’s All of Us Research Program Releases First Genomic Dataset of Nearly 100,000 Whole Genome Sequences, NIH News Release, March 17, 2022.
Funding and Program Partners (All of Us)
Medicine and Your DNA (All of Us)
Clopidogrel Response (National Library of Medicine/NIH)
Hereditary Disease Risk (All of Us)
Preparing for DNA Results: What Is a Genetic Counselor? (All of Us)
Research Projects Directory (All of Us)
Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes, Centers, and Offices to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 24th in the series of NIH guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.