Two prominent figures from opposite ends of the political spectrum united around a common theme of promoting science-based solutions to the opioid crisis on the final full day of the National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit in Atlanta.
In remarks that closed a morning plenary session, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy called for wider application of evidence-based strategies, including maintenance medications to lessen the chances of recurrence to opioid use. Both talked in urgent tones.
“If we were losing 33,000 Americans a year to terrorism, we would have a national mobilization,” Gingrich said.
“Culturally, the medical system is inept,” said Kennedy. “We need to demand that they change their ways, that they implement this medical civil rights act,” referring to the unfulfilled promise of the behavioral health parity law that he co-sponsored in the House.
Both founding advisors of the group Advocates for Opioid Recovery, Gingrich and Kennedy made strong cases for why medications such as buprenorphine and methadone need to be a major part of the response to the crisis. Gingrich cited the observation that opioid detox without subsequent science-based treatment carries a higher risk of eventual opioid overdose and death than no detox at all. He suggested that use of medication treatments in the justice system would make for more easily managed correctional populations, as well as inmates more prepared to be reintegrated as productive members of society.
Kennedy's comments were personal, as he discussed having been on Suboxone for more than a year while keeping a busy congressional schedule, then later being able to make profound and lasting life changes after serving in the House. He said he is now maintaining the longest period of continuous sobriety in his life, having not used since February 2011.
But Kennedy, who has written openly about his personal and family addiction, says stigma continues to rear its head at times in his life, such as when he recalls the negative comments from his brother and mother when he first shared his story. “I feel like I've betrayed my family,” he said. “Even though we know we've broken free [from addiction], it doesn't feel like it.”
Possible research partnership
The first speaker in the morning plenary session, National Institutes of Health (NIH) director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, discussed areas of ongoing research that could inform the creation of safer opioids, more effective drug formulations to treat dependence, and more comprehensive options for reversing overdose. He added that the NIH soon could help to launch a public-private research partnership on opioids that would be similar to partnerships that have been created in the past for diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer's disease.
Earlier this month in New York, NIH leaders met with the Food and Drug Adminstration (FDA) and industry researchers to map out what a partnership might examine. Collins said that some of the areas of inquiry that the partnership could launch or reinforce include:
Variable-duration formulations of buprenorphine and naltrexone.
Vaccines for heroin (with one now in a Phase 1 trial) and fentanyl (with one showing promise in animal research).
Subjects that could inform the creation of non-addictive pain therapies, including a better understanding of individuals' transition from acute to chronic pain, and exploring genetic data related to the perception of pain.
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