The University of New England has landed a five-year, $10.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to research alternatives to opioids for managing chronic pain.

UNE’s Center of Biomedical Research Excellence for the Study of Pain and Sensory Function has been studying the issue for five years, but acquiring grant funding will jump-start the efforts, said Ian Meng, a biomedical professor.

Meng said the research is still in the early stages but is promising.

Opioids are highly addictive, and overuse of the drugs has fueled a public health crisis that has swept Maine and the nation.

Maine is now averaging more than one drug overdose death per day – an all-time high – and overdoses have overtaken motor vehicle accidents as a cause of death.

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, four of five new heroin users were addicted first to prescription opioids. The Maine Legislature approved a strict new prescribing law in 2016 that caps the dosage and time that many patients can be prescribed opioids, in an attempt to reduce the number of people who become addicted to prescription painkillers.

Meng said UNE’s research center is taking a two-pronged approach to the problem – researching the brain to help scientists devise new medications, and researching other forms of pain control, such as physical therapy.

“We’re focused on finding other models to control chronic pain,” Meng said. “We don’t want to be tied to looking only at pharmaceuticals.”

But on the medication side, Meng said researchers are looking for possible new “targets” in the brain that drugs could affect to alleviate pain. Opioids work by targeting the mu receptors in the brain, but in so doing the drugs create a high risk of addiction.

“What we’re doing is trying to find alternative targets in the brain for the drugs,” Meng said. “This is basic scientific research, but once we find the target, chemists can quickly work to develop medications for those targets.”

Chronic pain affects 100 million Americans, according to the American Academy of Pain Medicine.

The NIH grant will more than double the budget for the UNE center, Meng said, from $1.7 million per year to $4.3 million.

He said the grant will allow the program to hire three additional researchers, support staff and scientific equipment.

Maine’s U.S. senators, Republican Susan Collins and independent Angus King, praised the award to UNE.

“Across Maine and the country, we are facing a drug epidemic that is fueled in part by the vast supply of prescription opioids currently in circulation, which is why UNE’s research to develop new alternatives to opioid treatments is so urgent and important,” they said in a joint statement.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

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