As part of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar’s cross-cutting department initiatives to address the opioid epidemic, the National Institutes of Health selected the University of Kentucky as one of the four research sites for the HEALing Communities Study in states hard hit by the opioid crisis.

Researchers from UK’s Center on Drug and Alcohol Research and across campus — in partnership with the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services and the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet — will lead the four-year, more than $87 million project. The goal of the study is to reduce opioid overdose deaths by 40% in 16 counties that represent more than a third of Kentucky’s population.

“The opioid epidemic is one of the most perilous and persistent challenges impacting our state and nation,” said Gov. Matt Bevin. “Kentucky is grateful to Secretary Azar and HHS for this historic grant allocation, and we look forward to collaborating closely with the University of Kentucky to implement this vital work.”

Sharon Walsh, Ph.D., director of UK's Center on Drug and Alcohol Research, is the principal investigator of the Kentucky study and will lead a team of more than 200 researchers, staff and state and community partners involved in the project.

Researchers will work closely with community coalition partners to ensure a community-centered approach and to maximize local engagement. In addition, a comprehensive health communication strategy will be used to reach the public, reduce stigma and increase awareness of — and access to — interventions made available through the program.

Sixteen counties in Kentucky that are "highly affected communities" have been identified to be included in the randomized study. They include Madison, Fayette, Jessamine, Clark, Kenton, Campbell, Mason, Greenup, Carter, Boyd, Knox, Jefferson, Franklin, Boyle, Bourbon and Floyd counties.

Overall, these rural and metropolitan counties had 764 opioid overdose deaths in 2017 with two-thirds of them involving fentanyl. They also represent about 40% of the state’s overall population of more than 4 million people.

The counties involved in the study will be randomized in two separate waves with theory-driven implementation strategies deployed during an initial eight-month phase followed by an observation period to gauge the impacts of the interventions on OD-related outcomes.

“This is an historic day. It’s empowering to have additional resources to continue the partnership with UK, the federal government and our partner state agencies,” said Adam Meier, Secretary, Cabinet for Health and Family Services. “This project will allow us to build out an even better array of services for individuals, their families, and communities so we can study, very scientifically, what works and what doesn’t as we get a handle on this epidemic.”

The federal grant is the result of action taken last year when Congress allocated $500 million to NIH for a new initiative for research related to opioid addiction, development of opioid alternatives, pain management and addiction treatment.

Earlier this year, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell McConnell, R-Ky., contacted NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. on behalf of UK in support of the federal grant. In addition, just last week, McConnell discussed the importance of the grant with Azar in his office in the U.S. Capitol. During the meeting, McConnell highlighted the critical medical research priorities at UK and the impact this grant will have on the Commonwealth’s efforts to combat opioid addiction.

“Kentuckians in both rural and urban communities continue to endure the serious damage of substance abuse. Unfortunately, Kentucky is one of the hardest hit states, but we’re also on the forefront of the national response,” said McConnell in a statement. “…As Senate Majority Leader, I continue to work closely with Secretary Azar and Director Collins to deliver critical NIH funding to Kentucky, so the vital medical research at the University of Kentucky can continue benefiting communities across the Commonwealth.”

Kentucky is currently ranked fifth in the United States for opioid overdose deaths. The state had more than 1,500 drug overdoses in 2017.

UK President Eli Capilouto said the grant is a testament to UK’s strong partnership with the state. He said he owed a debt of gratitude to McConnell, Sen. Rand Paul, Rep. Andy Barr and Rep. Hal Rogers for their enduring support of UK’s efforts to build a brighter future for Kentucky.

“I have been a strong and consistent advocate for the University of Kentucky’s initiatives to combat the opioid crisis, and I was particularly proud to support their application for the HEALing Communities Study,” said Barr in a statement. “Kentucky has the fifth highest overdose mortality rate in the nation, and it is essential that we continue to secure these resources for the Commonwealth to combat this tragic crisis.”

The NIH's HEAL Initiative (Helping to End Addiction Long-Term) was launched in April 2018 and aims to speed scientific solutions to stem the national opioid public health crisis. Grant awards were also issued to the Boston Medical Center, Boston; Columbia University, New York City; and Ohio State University, Columbus.

Jonathan Greene is the editor of The Register; follow him on Twitter @jgreeneRR.

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