AUBURN, Ala. — In an effort to combat a public health crisis that affects those in Alabama and throughout the country, Auburn University’s Harrison School of Pharmacy has established the Center for Opioid Research, Education and Outreach, or COACH.
The center unifies a variety of existing programs and research going on at the Harrison School of Pharmacy, or HSOP. These programs include educational efforts on the use of naloxone, the opioid antidote; research funded by the United States Department of Justice on synthetic and designer drugs; outreach efforts training professionals across the state on how to combat the opioid crisis; and many others.
“Creation of this center allows us to house multiple programs under one umbrella and expand our opportunities for fighting the opioid epidemic and related substance use and abuse disorders,” said Dr. Richard Hansen, dean of the Harrison School of Pharmacy. “The COACH will create synergies across faculty that are fighting the opioid epidemic all the way from detection of new molecules, addiction treatment and prevention and emergency response.”
Last year, Alabama had the highest opioid prescribing rate in the country and high rates of opiate prescribing increase risk of opioid use disorder and overdose. In 2017, there were 419 opioid-related overdose deaths in Alabama, and there were 2,180 opioid overdose related visits to the emergency room in the state in 2018. With a clear problem in the area, Hansen feels it is Auburn University’s duty to step up to the challenge.
“Clearly, there is a need for help battling the opioid epidemic and, as a land grant institution, Auburn University has a responsibility to help,” said Hansen. “In particular, the Harrison School of Pharmacy has an extensive portfolio of opioid-related work and we are prepared to be the go-to resource in the region.”
Dr. Karen Marlowe, assistant dean and professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice, will serve as the director of the center. As director, she will help facilitate research, education and outreach that directly addresses the needs of the state.
“The opioid issue in Alabama is a complex problem and will require a multifaceted solution,” said Marlowe. “The center allows for faculty and professionals from individual disciplines to combine their efforts to achieve outcomes that may not have been possible without an organized structure. By bringing together these different experts, we will be able to look at different aspects of this problem and present different research education, and outreach proposals to move the state forward.”
HSOP has an established history of work in the area, covering the pillars of research, education and outreach. Various programs have been supported financially by the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institutes of Health, Alabama Department of Public Health, Alabama Department of Mental Health and the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs. Additionally, faculty have forged relationships with entities like the Alabama District Attorney’s Association, Bradford Health Services, Alabama Cooperative Extension System, various law enforcement agencies and others in the state involved in combatting the opioid crisis.
“The Harrison School of Pharmacy has been highly engaged in this area prior to the formation of COACH,” said Marlowe. “Over the last five years, more than 1,000 health care professionals in Alabama and hundreds of community members have attended educational events designed to improve the appropriateness of prescribing, communication with patients, use of medication assisted therapy and use of naloxone. The medicinal chemistry team has worked to identify new compounds being abused in the community and our pharmacologists are working to measure the impact of utilizing new treatment pathways for pain management.”
With the expertise in place along with the existing relationships, Hansen feels COACH is primed to do meaningful and life-saving work in the state.
“The investigators housed in the COACH have strong practice relationships and affiliations with multiple state and regional-level stakeholders related to the opioid crises,” said Hansen. “I cannot think of any better-positioned group of researchers and clinicians in the southeastern United States.”
Faculty representation in COACH includes those from all three departments within HSOP: Drug Discovery and Development, Health Outcomes Research and Policy and Pharmacy Practice. Future collaborations are also expected with faculty members across Auburn’s campus.
“The complexity of the problem requires that it be attacked from numerous perspectives,” said Marlowe. “While our team has different approaches to the problem, our collaboration in COACH will allow us to share ideas, discoveries and methods more efficiently and effectively than when we were working in silos. Through these collaborations, we can build on each other’s strengths and knowledge to develop a systematic, multifaceted approach to the crisis.”
COACH was created with the support of Auburn Interim President Jay Gogue and Provost Bill Hardgrave after recognizing the significance of the problem within the state and the potential Auburn has to make a substantial impact.
“We are thankful for the support from the university administration. Their support creates the infrastructure to bring an interdisciplinary team together to address the opioid crisis,” said Marlowe. “The support is a clear indicator that the university community recognizes and accepts its responsibility as a land-grant institution to address this public health crisis in Alabama.”
To learn more about HSOP’s work in battling the opioid crisis, visit pharmacy.auburn.edu.