Agency wants faster research on non-addictive painkillers as drug abuse grows

A federal health agency wants to speed up research on non-addictive painkillers to help stem the epidemic of drug abuse in the nation.

The National Institutes of Health plans to develop partnerships between public agencies and private businesses in hopes of cutting the time to develop treatments in half, Dr. Francis Collins said Wednesday at the National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit in Atlanta, according to a news release from the organizer.

Right now, the nation is short on safe, effective alternatives to addictive pain drugs called opioids, said Collins, who heads NIH.

“Our list of options is woefully short,” Collins said.

Collins said the NIH is working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the pharmaceutical industry to find ways to speed up development of non-addictive alternatives to opioids, and to find ways to provide more options for treating addiction and opioid overdoses.

Kentucky recorded just over 1,300 overdose deaths in 2015, up from 979 in 2010, according to the state Office of Drug Control Policy.

Development of non-addictive pain treatments could have a significant impact in Kentucky, where abuse of opioids has helped drive an increase in overdose deaths.

The state recorded just over 1,300 overdose deaths in 2015, up from 979 in 2010, according to the state Office of Drug Control Policy.

Abuse of pain pills such as oxycodone played a role in the increase, along with rising abuse of heroin and a pain drug called fentanyl.

Kentucky was among four states with the highest age-adjusted overdose death rate in 2015, along with West Virginia, New Hampshire and Ohio, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nationwide, there were 52,404 overdose deaths in 2015, and of those, two-thirds were opioid-related, Tom Price, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said at the summit.

Smith announced that $485 million to fight drug abuse has been awarded to states and territories through the 21st Century Cures Act.

In earlier presentations at the summit, Dr. Stephen Ostroff, acting commissioner of the FDA, said there are “far more opiates dispensed than are needed to treat pain,” according to a news release.

Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the amount of opioids prescribed in the nation has quadrupled in the past decade.

Studies have shown that if a person receives an initial prescription for an opioid painkiller for five days or more, he or she is more likely to still be on the drug one and three years later, Schuchat said.

“We need to make sure that the prescriptions we are giving out are the right ones,” she said.

Schuchat said there has been improvement since the CDC released guidelines last year on prescribing opioids. The agency is working to expand use of the guidelines, strengthen state prevention efforts and increase public awareness of the issue.

Gov. Matt Bevin also spoke at the conference this week, touting a law the General Assembly approved last month that will limit doctors to writing a three-day prescription for opioid painkillers for patients with acute pain. When the law takes effect in late June, it also will allow higher penalties for trafficking in heroin or fentanyl, an opioid that is similar to morphine but far more powerful.

“This isn’t to prevent people from getting what they need. It’s to apply a modicum of common sense and a bit of a constraint at the front end of addiction,” Bevin said, according to Hospitals and Health Networks magazine.

The summit is the largest national conference of policymakers, treatment providers, public-health officials, police, researchers and advocates working to deal with prescription drug abuse.

Operation UNITE, which is headquartered in Somerset and works to reduce drug abuse in 32 Southern and Eastern Kentucky counties, started the annual conference in 2012.