School of Medicine

Roundtable on opioids brings HHS leaders to Medical Campus

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams, MD, speaks Sept. 20 at a roundtable discussion on the opioid crisis. The meeting was held at Barnes-Jewish Hospital's Parkview Tower on the Washington University Medical Campus. On the right is U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Deputy Secretary Eric D. Hargan. (Photo: Tim Parker)

Officials tour research lab focused on fighting opioid addiction

From the WashU School of Medicine News

Leaders from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) visited the Washington University Medical Campus on Sept. 20 to learn about strategies to address the opioid crisis, which has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people in the United States since 1999.

The visit helped launch a government public education campaign on the dangers of substance abuse. It also coincided with an announcement from Health and Human Services that the federal government will give states $1 billion to fight opioid addiction, including $44 million to the state of Illinois and $29 million to Missouri.

Eric D. Hargan, HHS deputy secretary, led a roundtable discussion, accompanied by U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams, MD, and Elinore F. McCance-Katz, MD, PhD, assistant secretary for mental health and substance use.

Participants included local leaders on the front lines of fighting the opioid crisis, including those from community organizations, law enforcement and health-care providers. Washington University addiction specialist Evan Schwarz, MD, an associate professor of emergency medicine and director of the Outpatient Medical Toxicology and Addiction Medicine Clinic, and Clay Dunagan, MD, BJC HealthCare senior vice president and chief clinical officer, represented the Medical Campus during the roundtable.

“This is the number one public health issue in the United States,” said Hargan, who was born in Cape Girardeau, Mo, and raised in nearby Southern Illinois. “For three years in a row, life expectancy has declined, and those declines are entirely due to opioids.”

A number of researchers at the School of Medicine are focused on understanding opioid addiction and chronic pain. The HHS leaders toured the laboratory of one of those researchers, Jose Moron-Concepcion, PhD, associate professor of anesthesiology.

His work focuses on understanding how opioids affect the brain. He and his colleagues have found that long-term opioid use seems to flip a switch in the brain that triggers cravings for months after drug use stops — an experience that can contribute to relapse. His research could lead to more effective ways to fight addiction.

“There are certain areas of the brain that respond to the repeated use of opioids,” Moron-Concepcion said. “If there is a way to break that cycle between opioid use and cravings, we may be able to help drug users and prevent relapse.”

  Read more at the News Hub.