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RI Hospital secures funding for opioid research center

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island Hospital is ramping up its fight against the opioid crisis by establishing a new research center backed by an $11.8 million federal grant.

According to the National Institutes of Health, Rhode Island has one of the nation’s highest rates of death by opioid overdose, with more than double the national rate in 2016.

In an effort to face the growing addiction problem head-on, hospital officials on Thursday announced plans to open the Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) on Opioids and Overdose.

Funded with a five-year grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, officials said the center will work in partnership with Brown University and Women & Infants Hospital to research what leads to opioid addiction and how best to treat it, along with related conditions such as neonatal abstinence syndrome.

The center will be led by Josiah Rich, M.D., M.P.H. and Traci Green, Ph.D., M.Sc., who are both national experts in the field and also serve as advisors to Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force.

Dr. Rich told Eyewitness News that Rhode Island has been hit hard by the epidemic because there is a culture of addiction in the state – whether in the form of alcohol or drugs – and because its location between Boston and New York City is prime for drug dealers stopping along the route. 

However, there are still several unknowns when it comes to drug addiction, according to Rich, and there isn’t one answer or one treatment that works in every situation. That’s why he and Dr. Green, who is an associate professor at Brown University, said this research is so important to them.

Green said one of the major obstacles in society approaching and understanding drug addiction is the stigma surrounding it, as well as mental illness – one of the roots of addiction. The researchers said that people in all walks of life can be impacted by opioids. 

“It’s not just somebody is using drugs and they overdose,” Rich said. “There’s policy implications, there’s law enforcement implications, there are education implications, there’s workforce implications. This is a broad epidemic that touches every one of us in the state.”

“The epidemic is local and it’s national,” he added. “Is your epidemic predominantly prescription related? Is it predominantly heroin? Is it predominantly fentanyl? How quickly is it moving? Who is being impacted? And really to address the epidemic on a local level, you need to understand those factors.”

Green also said that because they’re pulling researchers and investigators from several hospitals and other facilities, the new center will be a virtual one. Experts will gather for conferences several times a year to share their research and data, and discuss the different aspects of the ongoing crisis.

They’ll also be looking at how technology can play a role in preventing overdose deaths. Green said already, through technology, they’ve created “NaloxBox,” which contains doses of naloxone, a life-saving drug administered to someone who is overdosing on an opioid. Also known by the brand name Narcan, the spray reverses the effects of an overdose so that the person can still breathe while they’re rushed to the hospital for further treatment and monitoring.

Research has revealed addicts often overdose in public bathroom stalls, according to Green, so NaloxBoxes are being installed in bathrooms at some public locations around the state, such as at malls. If a person is overdosing and opens the box, it will notify first responders, who can treat the person by properly administering naloxone.

Green is hopeful they’ll be able to “use research to meet people where they’re at,” whether that be through text messaging or other cell phone functions, to encourage addicts to get help.

Additionally, Rhode Island Hospital will fund 15 “junior investigators” with a $600,000 pilot program to look into other ways they can approach and treat the crisis. 

Hospital officials said Rhode Island’s congressional delegation was pivotal in helping to secure the COBRE grant.

“We still have a lot to learn about how to prevent and treat opioid addiction,” U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said. “That’s why medical research is a huge part of the battle against the opioid crisis, and why I’ve been fighting to unlock research funding like this for Rhode Island.” 

“Establishing this COBRE will help us better understand this disease and identify real solutions to address it,” Congressman David Cicilline said.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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