More than 80 people from across the state, as well as U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, and Michael Botticelli, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy participated in last week’s roundtable discussion about the opioid abuse crisis in Maine.

The session about this public health crisis was organized by independent U.S. Sen. Angus King.

As a scientist and educator who has worked in the opioid field for almost 30 years, I found it encouraging to see a consensus that opioid abuse and addiction are complex problems that require a multi-faceted and coordinated effort to improve prevention and treatment outcomes.

Several compelling arguments were made about the need to destigmatize medical conditions that affect the brain, including substance abuse and chronic pain. By doing so, we will see more people seeking professional help sooner in the substance misuse/abuse cycle.

Neuroscience research is making progress in understanding the biological underpinnings of emotions, drug reinforcement and habitual use patterns of behavior. With this information, we can elevate the discussions and approaches to the level of other chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

We also need to encourage people to share their personal stories of tragedy and recovery. This is about young sons and daughters, husbands and wives, human beings and the communities they live in.

I made the case to the panel that federal funding agencies, and the researchers and practitioners who use these funds, need stable and adequate funding to conduct innovative research or implement programs that have been shown to be effective.

Prioritization is, of course, an important component of a comprehensive plan, and we need to make the commitment to the public who are funding these grants and programs to deliver on practical solutions that will meaningfully help people and communities facing these daunting challenges. As scientists, we can promise hope without the hype.

Federal agencies such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse need to have a balanced portfolio that includes basic science, clinical and public health research projects, along with public education programs. In fact, the second part of the institute’s mission is to “ensure the rapid and effective dissemination and use of the results of that research to significantly improve prevention and treatment, and to inform policy as it relates to drug abuse and addiction.”

As part of these efforts, we need to bring back “science” into science education and fund programs such as the now-defunct Science Education Drug Abuse Partnership Award. This highly successful program is supposed to fund “innovative programs and materials for enhancing knowledge and understanding of neuroscience and the biology of drug abuse and addiction among K-12 students, the general public and health care practitioners.”

These types of education initiatives have a relatively low cost, are scalable and sustainable and can have immediate impacts on the substance abuse and opioid crisis. They complement other approaches and research strategies that will have positive impacts in the mid- and long-term.

I am proud to be a scientist and educator at the University of New England. The majority of our osteopathic medical students enter primary care fields that are critical for coordinating medical care around addiction and pain.

We emphasize an interprofessional approach to educating all of our medical and allied health students, and we provide training well above the national average in areas such as substance abuse, addiction, opioids and pain management.

We have made strategic investments in building vibrant federally funded research programs in the biomedical and public health domains germane to substance abuse, and actively collaborate with partners throughout the state.

Finally, our faculty, staff and students volunteer in the K-12 school systems and broader community to raise awareness about substance abuse and implement strategies to reduce the impact of opioid drugs such as morphine and heroin.

I applaud King and the Maine delegation in Washington for taking a leadership role in tackling the opioid issues confronting Maine. It is heartening to see how many different leaders throughout Maine took part in this roundtable discussion and shared not just their challenges but also potential solutions.

I expect we will build on this momentum with the governor’s task force, which also met last week, to develop a model approach that integrates efforts at the community, state and federal levels.

Edward Bilsky, Ph.D., is vice president for research and scholarship at the University of New England.

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