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Addiction U: Schools Form Research Consortium On Opioid Epidemic

Erica Peterson

At a conference last year on the region’s opioid crisis, journalist Sam Quinones presented a call to action to Northern Kentucky University. Quinones is author of the influential book on the opioid crisis, “Dreamland,” and a tireless speaker on the topic. At conferences and other events in the Ohio Valley he frequently makes a plea: create an addiction research hub among regional institutions affected by the epidemic. NKU decided to give it a shot. “We looked and saw who was doing any kind of research related to health,” Vice Provost for Graduate Education, Research and Outreach Samantha Langley-Turnbaugh said. “We sent an invitation for them to come to campus last December and to start to talking about opioid addiction and the possibility of forming a consortium.” That December meeting kicked off a series of planning that will culminate Friday with the first meeting of the Ohio River Valley Addiction Research Consortium on NKU’s campus. Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia will be represented by 16 colleges and universities, along with health professionals, law enforcement, social workers and advocates.

Courtesy White House, Office of the First Lady

First Lady Melania Trump with an infant born affected by opioids.

The group will begin by focusing on one topic: the rising number of babies born affected by the substance misuse of their mothers while pregnant, also known as neonatal abstinence syndrome. “There’s lots of conferences out there on just overall addiction,” Langley-Turnbaugh said. “We didn’t see anyone that was doing this. So we were trying to find something that would be a little bit different.” Friday’s event will include a keynote address from Dr. Judith Feinberg, a professor of Behavioral Medicine & Psychiatry at West Virginia University who has been researching the opioid crisis. Her speech will be an update on the region’s overall problem. “Southern Ohio, northern and eastern Kentucky and most of West Virginia have the highest rate of opioid use, of overdose deaths, of the infections that come along with this,” she said. “We are the center of the national epidemic.” Feinberg does not work directly with drug affected babies but says this is an issue she’s encountered while researching the region’s opioid epidemic. Five percent of babies born just in West Virginia last year were born drug affected, according to data from the state’s Health Statistics Center. Researchers across the region want to track the effects of neonatal abstinence syndrome on these babies as they grow into adolescents and beyond. A consortium would make tracking these people across the Ohio Valley much easier. “It’s always important to know the long range outcomes,” Feinberg said. “And of course you’re not going to know that until the long range happens. But you will learn a lot of things along the way.” The Ohio River Valley Addiction Research Consortium has set short-term goals to share NAS research, connect institutions and establish the logistics of the group. NKU would like to see a long-term goal established that makes the consortium more regional. “We like to think we’re kicking off this effort,” Langley-Turnbaugh said. “But then others will come in and a university will stand up and say, ‘We would like to do this next year.’” She doesn’t necessarily see the path forward as smooth. The current model of funding for academic research creates a competitive atmosphere rather than a cooperative one for sources such as federal grants. “They really are tailored for individuals, not consortiums,” she said. “One of the things we’ve been talking about is whether we should start talking to our congressional delegation. Perhaps they could have some impact on the way federal funding opportunities are crafted to give more value to what we’re trying to do.” But Langley-Turnbaugh and the partners of the Ohio River Valley Addiction Research Consortium see Friday’s event as an early step in the right direction. The conference takes place from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Friday. A full schedule can be read here.

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