Heller's Opioid Policy Research Collaborative sets its sights on drug overdoses

November 07, 2023

Fentanyl test strips

By Tony Moore

Since 1999, more than 900,000 people in the U.S. have died of drug overdoses, a number nearly equal to the combined populations of Wyoming and Vermont. Even worse, more than 109,680 people died from drug overdoses in 2022 alone.

In response, researchers at the Heller School’s Opioid Policy Research Collaborative (OPRC) have placed themselves at the forefront of research and design efforts aimed at addressing the ongoing crisis, whose seemingly unabated march they hope to hinder.

“Many people don’t realize that drug overdose deaths are the largest cause of deaths among young adults in the U.S. — with rates much higher than deaths from cancer, heart disease, and other unintentional injuries,” says Mary Jo Larson, PhD’92, senior scientist at Heller’s Institute for Behavioral Health within the Schneider Institutes for Health Policy and Research. She notes that the “largely preventable” overdose crisis also contributes to already huge disparities in health status between Black and Hispanic individuals and white Americans. “And it’s getting worse. The age-adjusted death rate from drugs is increasing in the country, while death rates from cancer, heart disease, and other common causes are decreasing.”

Besides the very human toll fatal and nonfatal overdoses take, they bring with them huge financial consequences to society; drug overdoses and other unintentional injuries and deaths amounted to $4.2 trillion in the U.S. in 2019 alone. New initiatives to prevent overdoses and reduce drug morbidity often require change in local systems, updated programmatic resources, and new legislation. And at the heart of the change engine is OPRC research and its focus on harm reduction and overdose prevention.

Interventions to prevent deaths

One such project, a randomized trial led by Traci Green, director of OPRC, centers on interventions to increase the distribution and use of naloxone — also known as Narcan, a drug that can rapidly reverse an opioid overdose — in community pharmacies. Additionally, OPRC is collaborating with other universities on a statewide randomized trial known as MassHEAL, which is engaging with 16 communities implementing various interventions and evaluating effectiveness in reducing overdose fatalities.

“OPRC studies have contributed to great increases in distribution of naloxone, fentanyl test strips, and community drug checking that alerts communities to the composition of street drug samples. OPRC first reported on the presence of xylazine, a dangerous veterinary tranquilizer, in the Massachusetts drug supply, which is a particularly harmful combination,” Larson explains. Green further notes, “OPRC serves as a primary resource for state and federal health officials, policymakers, and private organizations, and plays prominent roles in four key areas: cutting-edge research, evidence-based guidance and recommendations, convening and collaborating, and communicating with media outlets and others.”

Through OPRC webinars, Heller researchers have trained hundreds of first responders, community health workers, and people in local law enforcement and local courts on the consequences of xylazine, and conducted intensive workshops with 10 police departments and their partner organizations to promote plans for a local response in Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont. Bolstering OPRC’s efforts, in April 2023, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy declared xylazine in the illicit drug supply an emerging threat to U.S. public health.

“We have been encouraged by the support of the Biden administration for local harm reduction programs, including its historic declaration of xylazine as a public health crisis,” says Larson, adding that states and municipalities are also receiving new funding — estimated at more than $54 billion — from national opioids settlements with Purdue Pharma, Teva, Allergan, CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart. “Many locales will use these funds for prevention and harm reduction activities, which we hope will bend the curve on fatal and nonfatal overdoses.”