Bioethics Blogs

All Scientific Hands on Deck to End the Opioid Crisis

In 2015, 2 million people had a prescription opioid-use disorder and 591,000 suffered from a heroin-use disorder; prescription drug misuse alone cost the nation $78.5 billion in healthcare, law enforcement, and lost productivity. But while the scope of the crisis is staggering, it is not hopeless.

We understand opioid addiction better than many other drug use disorders; there are effective strategies that can be implemented right now to save lives and to prevent and treat opioid addiction. At the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta last April, lawmakers and representatives from health care, law enforcement, and many private stakeholders from across the nation affirmed a strong commitment to end the crisis.

Research will be a critical component of achieving this goal. Today in the New England Journal of Medicine, we laid out a plan to accelerate research in three crucial areas: overdose reversal, addiction treatment, and pain management [1].

First, there is a need to develop additional overdose-reversal interventions and improved formulations of naloxone to reduce mortality. Naloxone is very effective at reversing overdoses, but bystanders may not reach the person in time and the usual doses given may not be powerful or long-lasting enough to reverse overdoses on fentanyl and other highly potent synthetic opioids. In addition to new or differently formulated antagonists of the mu-opioid receptor, other targets such as the 5HT1A receptor (a serotonin receptor) may hold promise as alternative ways of reversing respiratory depression caused by opioid overdose.

Research is also needed to develop technologies that can detect an overdose and signal for help as well as intervene automatically to stimulate respiration.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.