Pharmacy education is proving critical in addressing the ongoing opioid crisis by promoting harm reduction and awareness, advancing critical research, and diversifying the field of addiction science. Several new initiatives in higher education highlight the transformative role that pharmacy school students and faculty can play in advancing addiction treatment and recovery.

Training Diverse Scientists

A key effort in this field is the Rising STARS (Scientific Training in Alcohol Research and other Substances) program, a collaboration between the University of Southern California (USC); California State University, Los Angeles; and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, a historically Black institution. Funded by a five-year, $1.3 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the interdisciplinary program trains undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds in the field of addiction science.

“It doesn’t matter what discipline you come from … we believe that these different disciplines should be integrated with each other in an all-hands-on-deck approach to solving the addiction crisis.”

– Adam M. Leventhal, PhD

Students from the three participating institutions work closely with faculty mentors from USC’s schools of pharmacy medicine, public policy, social work, and engineering to develop their understanding of studies related to addiction while also engaging in hands-on laboratory opportunities. Participants can choose to specialize in a specific area of addiction science, such as biology, epidemiology, neurology, pharmacology, or psychology, but they learn about the broader subject through a wide range of disciplinary lenses.

“It doesn’t matter what discipline you come from, whether it’s medicine, psychology, sociology, pharmacy, public policy, public health — the list goes on and on,” says Adam M. Leventhal, PhD, director of USC’s Institute for Addiction Science. “We believe that these different disciplines should be integrated with each other in an all-hands-on-deck approach to solving the addiction crisis. To do this, you need to be a place that empowers academics to break down silos that separate disciplines.”

Upon completion of the program, graduates are guaranteed interviews and opportunities to pursue select PhD entry slots, and application fees are waived at USC graduate schools. This initiative is particularly timely, as substance use disorders and overdose deaths have been increasing in the United States, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic — particularly in communities of color — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Researching Opioid Alternatives

In a pharmaceutical breakthrough, researchers at the Center for Clinical Pharmacology — a partnership between the Washington University (WashU) School of Medicine and the University of Health Sciences & Pharmacy (UHSP), both in St. Louis — recently discovered a potential treatment that could lead to the development of nonaddictive pain medications.

Existing opioids such as morphine and oxycodone target certain receptors in the brain that relieve pain but also create a sense of euphoria, which often leads to addiction. A study by WashU and UHSP researchers identified a new approach to pain relief that may circumvent these issues. The study focused on other receptors to provide pain relief without triggering addiction or hallucinations, which are another common side effect of existing pain management medications.

By unraveling the mechanisms responsible for these hallucinations and understanding how specific compounds interact with brain receptors, researchers hope to develop pain medication that offers a safer, nonaddictive alternative to traditional opioids.

Promoting Awareness, Safety

Along with training and research, other efforts to combat addiction, including those at the University of Connecticut (UConn) School of Pharmacy, focus on raising awareness of the connection between substance abuse and overdoses.

In early June 2023, during the Middletown PrideFEST, UConn pharmacy students and faculty partnered with Connecticut’s Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS) to promote harm reduction strategies in opioid use, which is critical in preventing overdoses. This included distributing naloxone, which reverses the effects of opioid overdoses in emergency situations, and supplying fentanyl test strips, which identify if a substance has been adulterated with the deadly opioid.

“The response was overwhelmingly positive and could be lifesaving, as these educated people leave with a lifesaving product for those experiencing opioid overdose,” says C. Michael White, PharmD, a UConn professor of pharmacy practice.●

This article was published in our January/February 2024 issue.