UO, OHSU will partner on opioid research with $10M grant

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A new $10.1 million grant will allow researchers at the University of Oregon and Oregon Health & Science University to help address the opioid abuse epidemic in Oregon and across the U.S.

The grant comes from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, will support a multidisciplinary collaboration with faculty members from across the UO and OHSU. It will fund a national center of excellence to better understand and develop interventions that can lead to improvements in outcomes for mothers who have a history of opioid use, as well as their children.

Led by College of Education professor Leslie Leve and psychology professor Philip Fisher, the grant will include nationwide outreach via a combination of direct services, communications, pilot and training activities, data sharing, and a strong virtual presence. The UO’s Data Science Initiative is also playing a key role.

The funding also will support three research projects, two of which are based at the UO and leverage the university’s research strengths in prevention, neuroscience and data science. Led by Fisher, director of the Center for Translational Neuroscience, and Beth Stormshak of the Prevention Science Institute, the two UO projects focus on supporting women so they are well-equipped to parent their young children.

The third research project, based at OHSU, will focus on understanding the brain function of mothers and their babies using its expertise in neuroimaging.

According to Fisher, such a multidisciplinary approach is necessary when it comes to an issue such as opioid misuse and addiction.

“This epidemic has many different root causes, and complex problems like this don’t get solved via a single perspective,” Fisher said. “The thing that makes the collaboration between the UO and OHSU so potentially impactful is there’s a broad range of disciplines that are being brought to bear.”

Researchers knew they needed to meld expertise in multiple areas to take on such a complex problem, said Leve, who is associate director of the Prevention Science Institute.

“We very intentionally put together a research team that includes developmental psychologists, clinical psychologists, counseling psychologists, sociologists, social psychologists, developmental neuroscientists and biologists,” she said.

At the UO alone, the center includes faculty members in two colleges, three centers or institutes and four departments.

“Although the diversity in scientific perspectives and approaches is not without its challenges at times, witnessing scientific boundaries dissolve as we develop and refine our models and approaches has been incredibly exciting,” Leve said.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said the center will address a major need.

“Opioid use and addiction are epidemics in our state, as well as nationwide, hitting our rural areas particularly hard,” Brown said. “I am pleased that your proposal will explore evidence-based treatments for women with young children in both our urban and rural areas of Oregon, and that this project links work at the University of Oregon with strengths at Oregon Health & Science University.”

Congressman Greg Walden, a Republican representing much of Central and Eastern Oregon and ranking member of the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce with jurisdiction over the National Institutes of Health, chaired the committee when the institute was reauthorized in December 2016, including doubling funding for opioid research.

“I applaud the University of Oregon and Oregon Health & Science University for their leadership in bringing an NIH Center of Excellence to Oregon,” Walden said. “The opioid epidemic requires an all-hands-on-deck approach and is going to take a team to stop it. The combined efforts of U of O, OHSU and NIH will expand our understanding of treatment, recovery and prevention of opioid use among women who are parenting young children and will bring us one step closer to ending this crisis.”

The center will also provide an administrative core led by Leve; a pilot and training core led by UO psychologist Elliot Berkman; and a data science core co-led by Dave DeGarmo of the Prevention Science Institute and Damien Fair from OHSU, with Bill Cresko, director of the UO’s Data Science Initiative also serving as an investigator.

Additionally, the connection to OHSU is strengthened by the participation of Alice Graham, who earned her doctorate working with Fisher.

Faculty members in the UO’s Center for Translational Neuroscience and Prevention Science Institute have a long history of collaboration spanning more than 20 years since Leve and Fisher first began collaborating as co-investigators together. The two institutes share a common goal of supporting the health and well-being of children and families nationwide, and their partnership on the center was a natural extension of Leve’s and Fisher’s prior collaborations.

“The three research projects in this center include partnerships with community service providers, medical providers and substance-use treatment providers in both rural and urban areas of Oregon,” Leve said. “We are the first national center with a focus on parenting in the context of opioid use, and I’m especially excited about the potential for Oregon to serve as a model for other states’ efforts to help parents who are misusing opioids.”

Fisher said one aspect of the research will examine whether addiction treatment could be improved by reworking the relationship between parent and child, which he calls an “invisible part of the epidemic.”

It’s especially relevant because the majority of people with an opioid addiction or opioid use issues are in an age range in which they have and are raising children.

“Can people adequately parent in the context of an opioid addiction?” Fisher said. “If so, what kinds of things can make it more possible? Can the presence of children be a lever to help people enter recovery and stay sober? Those are things we don’t know, and it’s really critical that we shine a scientific light on that particular domain so we can understand what’s going on.”

—By Jim Murez, University Communications