Researchers battle the opioid crisis

BAR HARBOR — A panel of researchers will discuss substance abuse research and the opioid crisis in Maine Friday, April 26, at 1 p.m. at the MDI Biological Laboratory.

The panel is part of the 46th Maine Biological and Medical Sciences Symposium (MBMSS), an annual statewide gathering at which students and scientists have the opportunity to network, collaborate, exchange ideas and share research results.

The discussion, entitled “The Science Behind the Opioid Crisis,” will be led by Karen L. Houseknecht, associate provost for research and scholarship at the University of New England. The panelists will be Ian D. Meng and Leslie Ochs of UNE and Elissa J. Chesler and Vivek Kumar of The Jackson Laboratory. The topics will include the roles played by genetics, pain and prescribing practices in the development of substance abuse, and the use of the mouse as a platform for addiction studies.

The rate of opioid-related overdose deaths in Maine is nearly double the national rate and the state ranks among the top 10 in the rate of opioid-related overdose deaths, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“We know we have the scientific resources here in Maine to make real progress in addressing the opioid crisis,” Houseknecht said. “Our goal is to bring researchers and health care professionals from across the state together to build collaborative partnerships to address the multi-faceted problem of substance abuse in an inter-disciplinary, intra-professional way.”

An audience discussion on the scientific resources that are being devoted to the opioid crisis will follow the panel.

As a professor of pharmacology, Houseknecht leads a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded research program that studies the pharmacology of psychiatric medications and emerging drugs of abuse. She is part of a multi-investigator, NIH-funded project to develop safer medications for the treatment of chronic pain.

Maine is one of many states with federal IDeA (Institutional Development Award) funding that are prioritizing research focused on reducing the burden of opioid addiction, according to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which administers the IDeA program. The program was established to enhance biomedical research in the 23 states and Puerto Rico that have historically had low success rates for grant funding.

Many of the IDeA states include rural regions that have been hard hit by the opioid crisis.

“The National Institutes of Health encourages those who receive IDeA funding to share research results widely across institutions and states,” said Jane E. Disney, director of education at the MDI Biological Laboratory. “Including this session on opioid research in our annual symposium is an example of our commitment to increasing knowledge about this important topic in Maine.”

Approximately 200 people are registered for the April 26-27 symposium, which was established in 1975 as a forum for scientists from a range of biological and biomedical sciences disciplines. Traditionally, it has also focused on supporting student research at the undergraduate and graduate levels and growing Maine’s research capacity.

The IDeA program supports MBMSS through Maine INBRE, a collaborative biomedical research and training network of 13 Maine education and research institutions. Other supporters include InSphero of Brunswick and IDEXX Laboratories of Westbrook.

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