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Should two research institutes become one?

March 1, 2010
by Alison Knopf
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Fears over a possible NIDA-NIAAA merger focus on the alcohol community

When Congress adopted the NIH (National Institutes of Health) Reform Act of 2006, it created a Scientific Management Review Board (SMRB) charged with making recommendations about establishing or abolishing institutes under NIH. Two institutes of great importance to the addiction treatment community—he National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)—re presently under close scrutiny.

During four meetings held last year, and another meeting with the NIAAA council that took place Feb. 3, the Substance Use, Abuse, and Addiction Working Group of the SMRB heard presentations from stakeholders on a possible merger of NIDA and NIAAA. The working group was to present a full range of options to the SMRB on March 10, and in May there will be a recommendation for a final decision, which ultimately will be made by NIH director Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD.

Not far beneath that landscape of facts lies a wellspring of emotion and fear. Alcohol researchers and the NIAAA community are deeply worried that in any merger, NIAAA would be the loser and NIDA would be the winner. As one observer put it: “To NIAAA, it's a merger. To NIDA, it's an acquisition.”

Not only are alcohol researchers worried about losing money, but they also are troubled by the possible loss of alcohol's unique identity as the primary drug of abuse, and a pervasive sense that the value of their work is not being recognized. Basically, those in favor of the merger ask, “Why not?” and say “The science is the same,” and those opposed ask, with anguish, “Why?” and say “The science is not the same!”

The discussion has led to divisiveness, putting long-time colleagues and friends on opposite sides of the issue. And while current employees of NIDA and NIAAA will not discuss this sensitive topic publicly, former ones do-none more eloquently than Enoch Gordis, MD.

“This is clearly not a time to bury the NIAAA,” wrote Gordis, former NIAAA director for 15 years, in written closed testimony to the Substance Use, Abuse, and Addiction Working Group last December. “That would be a terrible message to the American public and to the global community,” he wrote, adding that the World Health Organization has found that alcohol is the fifth leading cause of premature death and disability worldwide. “I ask this committee and the NIH: please don't take the sign off the door.”

Alcohol is unique in its actions and in the scale of the problems it causes, wrote Gordis. “The statement regarding both institutes that ‘the science is the same,’ which comes so trippingly off the tongue, is a serious misrepresentation of the scientific reality, and results from a very narrow perspective of the universe in which alcohol issues, problems and science play out.”

Most alcohol abusers and alcoholics are not drug abusers, Gordis points out-of the 18 million adults with an alcohol use disorder, only 13 percent also have a drug abuse disorder.

Recovering alcoholics

Another key participant in the discussion is the recovering community, which traditionally has had a close connection with NIAAA. The late U.S. Sen. Harold E. Hughes, a recovering alcoholic, helped created the Comprehensive Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation Act of 1970, legislation that established NIAAA. Hughes believed that alcohol research needed its own “highly visible agency,” recalled Gordis. And Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), broke his anonymity to testify before Congress on behalf of establishing NIAAA.

Slide from mary jeanne kreek, md
Slide from Mary Jeanne Kreek, MD

Invoking the name of Bill Wilson is a sign of some of the unspoken differences between NIDA and NIAAA-many people who want NIAAA to remain a separate institute are recovering alcoholics, with all of the personal investment that entails.

Gordis's letter, along with one from Ting-Kai Li, MD, NIAAA director from 2002 to 2008, was made public by the Research Society on Alcoholism on Jan. 28. Yet it's not only researchers who are concerned about a merger.

The National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP) officially opposed the merger around the time of the SMRB working group's first meeting last April. According to NAATP president and CEO Ronald J. Hunsicker, it is only the existence of NIAAA that has prevented alcohol, the most commonly abused substance, from being ignored amid a growing focus on drug abuse issues and treatments.

With a focus on pharmaceutical cures for addiction, there will not be as much “personal transformation,” says Hunsicker. “We would have people who are perhaps not using, but they would not be having any major changes taking place,” he said. “Do we work to get people to make lifestyle changes, or is it just chemistry development?”

Hunsicker would like to see more of a focus on addiction as a primary disease, with recovery measured not by “fewer drinking days” but by “long-term recovery.” He would like to see both NIDA and NIAAA have a focus on recovery that goes beyond biochemical concerns, even taking into consideration the spiritual.

Arguing the science

On the other side of the argument are some of the top names in addiction research. “The science on use, abuse and addiction clearly belongs together,” says Mary Jeanne Kreek, MD, head of the Laboratory of the Biology of Addictive Diseases at Rockefeller University in New York City.