Support, expertise aid NC’s opioid response

Carolina faculty are designing safer pain relievers, providing better treatment and helping communities develop action plans.

By Scott Jared, University Communications

Graphic with a gray background, an outline of the state of North Carolina in Carolina Blue, and six Navy blue illustrative icons to represent corresponding projects. The icons, stacked in two rows of three, are listed as follows: A hospital cross symbol; three people locked in arms; a pill bottle and two pills; a vial; a crossed-out symbol atop a pill with a dollar sign next to it; and a hand lifting up a heart with text.

More than 4,000 people in North Carolina died from an unintentional opioid overdose in 2021, according to the latest information from the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. Researchers across UNC-Chapel Hill are working to help communities understand the opioid epidemic’s effects on their residents and their economy and respond in ways that fit their needs.

Take a minute to read about some of the projects.

Helping tailor local response plans

The UNC School of Government’s ncIMPACT Initiative launched the Opioid Response Project to bring together Carolina faculty experts on law, social services, nonprofits, child welfare and more in partnership with North Carolina local governments to find common solutions for the opioid problem.

The project connected first responders, law enforcement, health care professionals, treatment and recovery providers, judicial workers, government officials and others from 16 counties to learn from each other and create action plans for their communities.

A graphic with a map of North Carolina with 16 counties shaded in different colors to indicate counties participating in the UNC School of Government's Opioid Response Project. The counties highlighted are: Transylvania, Wilkes, Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Forsyth, Durham, Cumberland, Greene, Lenoir, Wayne, Onslow, Beaufort, Hyde, Martin, Tyrell and Washington. At the bottom of the graphic, the hashtags #ncIMPACT and #OpioidResponseProject appear.

The teams created public education campaigns on treatment and recovery, provided resources on several topics such as reducing stigma and how to use naloxone and produced a community guide and a report to help other communities create action plans.

A group of nine people in Durham posing for a photo indoors in front of a sign reading

Designing safer pain-relief drugs

At the UNC School of Medicine’s pharmacology department, Dr. Bryan L. Roth’s lab is designing safer drugs to relieve severe pain without triggering the life-threatening side effects or overdosing of drugs such as oxycontin, oxycodone and morphine. Jeff DiBerto led the initial pharmacological experiments as a doctoral student at Carolina and is continuing the work at EvE Bio, a Roth lab spin-off company.

Amino acid bonds of opioid receptors bound to peptides.

We are attempting to build better kinds of opioid. We’re never going to get there without these kind of basic molecular insights, wherein we can see why pain is relieved and why side effects occur.

Dr. Bryan L. Roth

A man, Bryan Roth, posing for a photo in a lab.

Testing street drugs and alerting communities

Nabarun Dasgupta ’13, Gillings Innovation Fellow at the Gillings School of Global Public Health and senior scientist at the UNC Injury Prevention Research Center, is working with colleagues across the University to develop systems to detect and issue public warnings about dangerous substances mixed in street drugs to warn drug users and help medical professionals treat overdoses and addiction more precisely.

Five people huddled around a laptop in a laboratory.

The project uses a public health approach to prevent harm, while monitoring the state’s illicit drug supply through an online database.

Screenshot of a webpage from a drug-checking lab website. A sample number

Guiding communities on settlement funds

As communities receive payments from the National Opioid Settlement and other lawsuits, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s Center for the Business of Health is developing an adaptable playbook to help state, municipal and local governments spend the money effectively.

North Carolina has received about $98 million in settlement funds of the nearly $1.4 billion coming to its communities through 2038.

The center and Acadia Healthcare are conducting research to develop the playbook by reviewing the epidemic’s impact and analyzing the possible results of untested or under-researched abatement strategies and prevention measures through economic analysis and qualitative immersive experiences with communities throughout North Carolina.

Providing better treatment

Dr. Alex Gertner ’20 (Ph.D.), ’22 (MD), a resident in the UNC School of Medicine’s psychiatry department, is seeking better ways to provide accessible and effective treatment for opioid use disorders and thereby save lives.

Dr. Alex Gertner

Dr. Alex Gertner

Gertner is collaborating with Carolina researchers such as Helen Newton, an assistant professor in the School of Medicine’s family medicine department, and other institutions to understand how differing approaches to opioid use disorder treatment affect patient outcomes.

In a soon-to-be published study led by the University of Pittsburgh, Gertner used national insurance data to identify treatment settings like primary care offices and specialized addiction centers, where patients had higher retention rates. Gertner will next try to determine why those places have higher retention rates. He will also look at electronic health records to describe the variation in clinical practices between physicians and clinics offering OUD treatment. That research may contribute to more detailed practice guidelines.

Helping women affected by substance abuse

UNC Horizons is a substance use disorder treatment program for women, including those who are pregnant, parenting and/or whose lives have been touched by abuse and violence. The comprehensive program has successfully treated more than 5,000 patients and their children during the past 30 years.

Woman smiling as she holds a baby outside.

The program offers prenatal care, inpatient and outpatient treatment, career counseling, housing assistance, case management, family therapy and a 5-star child development center for clients’ children. The UNC School of Medicine’s obstetrics and gynecology department started Horizons in 1993 in response to the drug and alcohol abuse epidemic of the late 1980s.

Woman smiling while holding a baby in a chair while talking with another woman inside of an office.