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Health officials vow to develop drugs to curb the opioid epidemic

Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Nora D. Volkow, who heads one of its components, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), announced a public-private partnership aimed at cutting in half the time ordinarily needed to develop new therapies.

The goal is to rapidly bring to market three types of drugs: nonaddictive medications for chronic pain, better treatments for opioid addiction and improved methods of reversing opioid overdoses.

“We are very much committed to bringing all hands on deck to address what is clearly a major public health crisis in our society,” said Collins, who added that President Trump had encouraged him to make this area of research a high priority. There is a “long list of scientific opportunities that we are very committed to pursuing,” Collins added.

How another NIH partnership with drug companies works

Collins and Volkow made their announcement in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine and in a briefing for reporters.

The officials said there is a strong need in the battle against opioid addiction for both the kind of basic research that NIH conducts and ways to quickly convert discoveries into drugs. Every day, they noted in the journal article, 90 Americans die of opioid overdoses despite the widespread availability of naloxone, which counteracts opioid's life-threatening effects.

Relapse is common among substance abusers despite the development of buprenorphine and other medications that treat the powerful cravings of opioid addiction.

Of the three goals, development of a nonaddictive but effective analgesic for severe and chronic pain would have the most far-reaching effect. Volkow said NIH can contribute by conducting research on newly understood cellular pathways for pain signaling and its relief. In the journal article, Collins and Volkow also raised the possibility of developing a drug that binds to opioid receptors in the brain and kills pain but does not create euphoria or suppress breathing.

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Efforts to develop a nonaddictive opioid have picked up speed in recent years as the epidemic has mushroomed, after flagging in the past two decades because the medical community did not realize how addictive the drugs were or how little effect they have on chronic pain, Collins said.

Respondents who took part in The Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey on long-term, opioid painkiller use share their experiences of living with pain (Video: Monica Akhtar, Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The public-private model is patterned after NIH's Accelerating Medicines Partnership, a three-year-old effort to develop new treatments for Alzheimer's disease, Type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. NIH is working with 10 drug companies and 12 advocacy groups — including the drug industry's lobbying organization, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America — on a plan to develop new treatments and methods of diagnosis.

Both sides contribute funding to that effort, and Collins said that would be true of the opioid project, as well. NIH will hold workshops with officials from drug companies in six weeks and hopes to have some early results as soon as two or three years from now.