Conference Coverage

NIH’s HEAL initiative seeks coordinated effort to tackle pain, addiction



– Congress has allocated a half billion dollars annually to the National Institutes of Health for a program that seeks to end America’s opioid crisis. The agency is putting in place over two-dozen projects spanning basic and translational research, clinical trials, and implementation of new strategies to address pain and fight addiction.

Dr. Walter Koroshetz, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Bethesda, Md.

Dr. Walter Koroshetz

The Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) initiative has over $850 million in total obligated for fiscal year 2019, said Walter Koroshetz, MD, speaking at the scientific meeting of the American Pain Society. This represents carryover from 2018, a planning year for the initiative, along with the 2019 $500 million annual supplement to the NIH’s base appropriation.

In 2018, NIH and other federal agencies successfully convinced Congress that funding a coordinated use of resources was necessary to overcome the country’s dual opioid and chronic pain crises. “Luck happens to the prepared,” said Dr. Koroshetz, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), Bethesda, Md., adding that many hours went into putting together a national pain strategy that is multidisciplinary and multi-layered, and involves multiple players.

The two aims of research under the initiative are to improve treatments for misuse and addiction, and to enhance pain management. Focusing on this latter aim, Dr. Koroshetz said that the initiative has several research priorities to enhance pain management.

First, the biological basis for chronic pain needs to be understood in order to formulate effective therapies and interventions. “We need to understand the transition from acute to chronic pain,” he commented. “We need to see if we can learn about the risk factors for developing chronic pain; if we get really lucky, we might identify some biological markers” that identify who is at risk for this transition “in a high-risk acute pain situation.”

Next, a key request of industry and academia will be development of more drugs that avoid the dual-target program of opioids, which affect reward circuitry along with pain circuitry. “Drugs affecting the pain circuit and the reward circuit will always result in addiction” potential, said Dr. Koroshetz. “We’re still using drugs for pain from the poppy plant that were discovered 8,000 years ago.”

The hope with the HEAL initiative is to bring together academic centers with patient populations and research capabilities with industry, to accelerate moving nonaddictive treatments through to phase 3 trials.


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