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Tufts University School of Medicine

Tufts Awards Seed Funding for Work in Prevention and Treatment of Opioid Addiction

Thomas Stopka, an associate professor of public health and community medicine
Thomas Stopka, an associate professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts School of Medicine, leads one of the research projects, which aim to improve patient care and investigate the underpinnings of addiction. Photo: Jake Belcher
Thursday, July 16, 2020 - 8:00pm

Tufts has awarded seed funding to eight research projects that seek to address the complex individual and community challenges wrought by the opioid epidemic. The inaugural awards of the Tufts Initiative on Substance Use and Addiction go to researchers at five Tufts schools and Tufts Medical Center. Together, they demonstrate a multidisciplinary drive to address this pressing public health crisis.

All the projects aim to help people and communities impacted by addiction. Six of the projects focus on improving clinical care and patient support systems while two will investigate the underpinnings of addiction, with the goal of finding new therapies and prevention methods.

The combined $150,000 in funding contains the first disbursement from the university’s newly created $3 million endowment, announced in December 2019, to support education, research, and civic engagement programs focused on the prevention and treatment of addiction and substance misuse. This year’s funding also includes a contribution from Tufts Medical Center.

The call for proposals that the Office of the Vice Provost for Research sent out in January resulted in 23 applications from staff and faculty from the School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering, the School of Medicine, the School of Dental Medicine, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, and Tufts Medical Center.

“The proposals drew on the breadth of expertise and dedication across Tufts,” said Caroline A. Genco, the university’s vice provost for research. “It was clear that faculty, staff, and clinicians from our unique collection of schools and clinics had been thinking about new ways to investigate substance use disorder, strengthen clinical operations, and improve access to training in addiction response. The new seed funding helps bring their ideas to the forefront and reaffirms Tufts’ commitment to being part of the solution to substance misuse.”

The recipients are:

Thomas J. Stopka, School of Medicine: While harmful opioid use by pregnant women has grown, only a fraction of those patients received methadone and other medication that can help treat the disorder. Stopka will map the research done on access to and use of such medication by pregnant women with the goal of identifying barriers and facilitators at the patient, provider, structural and policy levels.

Randi Sokol, School of Medicine and Cambridge Health Alliance: Sokol will develop, pilot, and evaluate an interactive, evidence-based national addiction curriculum for primary care providers, who often treat patients with substance use disorders.

Alysse Wurcel, Tufts Medical Center: People who inject drugs are at a high risk for contracting HIV if they share needles or syringes with someone who is infected. Wurcel will seek to improve HIV testing in people with substance use disorder who are admitted to Tufts Medical Center.

Raza Malik, Tufts Medical Center: Intravenous drug use is a key risk factor for hepatitis C, yet addiction treatment and hepatitis diagnosis are often disconnected. Malik will pilot and evaluate a multidisciplinary clinic model where patients with substance use disorder meet with providers from hepatology, infectious disease, addiction medicine, pharmacy and social work at one visit. The goal is to cut down on referrals and reduce time from diagnosis to therapy.

Rebecca Fauth, School of Arts and Sciences: In at-risk communities in Massachusetts, health professionals make home visits to pregnant women and mothers of young children, providing support and education. Fauth, in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, will examine the potential for combining those home visits with recovery support efforts, which have the potential to reach women at an optimal time for treatment.

Britta Magnuson, School of Dental Medicine: Dentists may encounter patients at risk for opioid use disorder more often than other health-care providers. Magnuson will assess how well dental electronic health records can identify at-risk patients. She will also develop educational content to train dentists in substance use screening and administration of naloxone, an antidote to opioid overdoses.

Thomas Nieland, School of Engineering: Nieland will develop a human experimental model based on a bioengineered 3D brain tissue system to understand the biology of opioid use disorder. The model, which mimics the neural responses in the human brain, will be used to investigate possible therapies for opioid addiction.

Fair Vassoler, Cummings School: A growing body of evidence shows that opioid use in one generation can affect future generations. By measuring RNA in male rats, Vassoler will examine the mechanisms by which environmental exposure to opioids can be transmitted to their offspring.

Awardees will begin work on their research this summer.

“To address and prevent addiction and substance misuse requires multipronged, transdisciplinary approaches. In the lab, in the clinic, and in the community, we need to examine the basic science underlying this disorder and to identify the diverse clinical opportunities to diagnose and help individuals being devastated by this disorder,” said John B. Wong, interim chief scientific officer at Tufts Medical Center. “These eight projects share the same ultimate goal, and by taking different approaches and addressing different needs, each researcher brings their own critical awareness, knowledge, and expertise to this complex disease of the brain and body.”