Conference Coverage

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



The initiative also aims to promote discovery of new biologic targets for safe and effective pain treatment. New understanding of the physiology of pain has led to a multitude of candidate targets, said Dr. Koroshetz: “The good news is that there are so many potential targets. When I started in neurology in the ‘90s, I wouldn’t have said there were many, but now I’d say the list is long.”

Support for this work will require the development of human cell and tissue models, such as induced pluripotent stem cells, 3D printed organoids, and tissue chips. Several HEAL-funded grant mechanisms also seek research-industry collaboration to move investigational drugs for new targets through the pipeline quickly. The agency is hoping to see grantees apply new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, which can help identify new chemical structures and pinpoint new therapeutic targets for drug repurposing.

In addition to rapid drug discovery and accelerated clinical trials, Dr. Koroshetz said that HEAL leaders are hoping to see cross-pollination from two other NIH initiatives to boost pain-targeted medical device development. Both the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) and the Stimulating Peripheral Activity to Relieve Conditions (SPARC) initiatives have already shown promise in identifying targets for effective, noninvasive pain relief devices, he said. Technologies being developed from these programs are “truly amazing,” he added.

A new focus on data and asset sharing among industry, academia, and NIH will “improve the quality, consistency, and efficiency of early-phase pain clinical trials,” Dr. Koroshetz continued. The Early Phase Pain Investigation Clinical Network (EPPIC-Net) will coordinate data and biosample hosting.

Through a competitive submission process, EPPIC-net will review dossiers from institutions or consortia that can serve as assets around which clinical trials can be designed and executed. These early-phase trials will focus on well-defined pain conditions with unmet need, such as chronic regional pain syndrome and tic douloureux, he said.

“We want to find patients who have well-defined conditions. We know the phenotypes, we know the natural history. We’re looking for clinical sites to work on these projects as part of one large team to bring new therapies to patients,” noted Dr. Koroshetz.

Further along the spectrum of research, comparative effectiveness research networks will provide a reality check to compare both pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic interventions all along the spectrum from acute to chronic pain. Here, data elements and storage will also be coordinated through EPPIC-Net.

Implementation science research will fine-tune the practicalities of bringing research to practice as the final piece of the puzzle, said Dr. Koroshetz.

Under NIH director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, Dr. Koroshetz is co-leading the HEAL initiative, along with Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. They wrote about the initiative in JAMA last year (JAMA. 2018 Jul 10;320[2]:129-30).

Dr. Koroshetz reported no conflicts of interest.


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