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Fight the opioid epidemic with science

Sep 13, 2017
In The News

Each day, more than 90 Americans die from heroin and opioid overdoses. In my home state of Illinois, there were 1,835 overdose deaths in 2015 — a 16 percent increase in just two years. New synthetic versions of heroin like fentanyl and carfentanil are exacerbating the crisis. Overdose deaths from these drugs increased by over 70 percent from 2014 to 2015. Just last month, President Trump called the opioid crisis a national emergency.

Lawmakers should attack this crisis on multiple fronts, beginning with the medical community. Doctors must understand the dangers of opioid over-prescription for chronic pain and offer alternatives, which are safer and often more effective. Patients need to understand how to safely dispose of unused painkillers. Educational programs can help stop recreational substance abuse before it happens. First responders and family members should have access to state-of-the art medicines for overdose emergencies.

We also need to expand treatment options for individuals who currently struggle with opioid abuse, combining both medically assisted treatments with evidence-based social support therapy. Funding must be made available for inpatient treatment facilities that represent the gold standard in addiction treatment and provide the best opportunity for recovery.

If we are serious about helping those who are struggling with dependency and preventing future drug abuse, we need to understand the underlying science of addiction. Decades of taxpayer-funded research in the U.S. and abroad have taught us a lot. When individuals use opioids repeatedly, they induce tolerance that results in the desensitization of the brain’s natural opioid system and make it less responsive over time. This process hijacks the brain’s normal decisionmaking process. Individuals’ risk for overdose increases as they try stronger and stronger doses to seek the same effect.

Thanks to recent breakthroughs in scientific research, we are closer than ever to understanding how the brain responds to drugs and how we can stop it. Nobel Prize-winning research completed at Argonne Laboratory and elsewhere provided a detailed study of structures called G-Coupled Protein Receptors that are at the heart of the addictive response of the brain. A recent study of neural pathways in mice found that deep brain stimulation can reverse cocaine addiction for them. In time, this kind of research will be applied to individuals with opioid dependency.

It is imperative that lawmakers support the agencies that work with industry partners on more immediate solutions. The National Institutes of Health leads the way in research that could fundamentally alter how we treat pain and stop this epidemic in its tracks. This year, NIH launched a new initiative to work with medical professionals to find new ways to fight pain, prevent overdoses and treat dependency. Drugs that directly block the craving for opioids and alcohol are emerging on the market. The institute’s work with drug companies is exactly the kind of partnership we need to stop addiction to opioids before it begins.

Current budget proposals, however, threaten this lifesaving research. The president’s fiscal 2018 budget request would cut funding to NIH by 22 percent and severely undercut our ability to advance medical research. The presidential appointee who prepared this budget has publicly questioned the need for any federally funded research at all. Lawmakers imagine they can be political heroes by voting for budgets that slash scientific research by 20 percent, but they inhibit our ability to respond to health crises.

The opioid crisis transcends geographical and ideological boundaries, so Congress appears ready to act across party lines. I joined with my colleagues to encourage President Trump to promptly adopt the recommendations of the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. In August, I led a letter with Reps. Evan Jenkins (R-W.Va.), Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) to encourage the president to make sure our most vulnerable populations have access to treatment. The commission has recommended actions the administration can take immediately to help in this fight and make it easier for people to access the lifesaving treatment they need to win their battle with addiction.

This year, I introduced the Expanding Opportunities for Recovery Act, which would reduce barriers to addiction treatment. I also introduced the Opioid Abuse Prevention Act, which would allow for better analysis of prescribing behavior. It would also equip doctors with more resources to help identify potential drug abuse patients by providing funds to train more personnel in interventions and patient screening.

These pieces of legislation are only the beginning of the effort we need in Washington. If the president wants to put an end to this crisis and help individuals who struggle with opioid dependency, he should support scientific research with sustained funding and work with Congress to pass legislation that will provide the resources Americans need now.