Penn State hosts summit to combat the opioid epidemic

Opioid overdose deaths in Pennsylvania increased 37 percent in 2016, ranking the state fourth in the nation. Coming on the heels of Gov. Tom Wolf’s declaration of the opioid crisis as a disaster emergency, Penn State recently held its first University-wide summit on the opioid epidemic.

The summit drew together almost 200 researchers, practitioners and educators from across the Penn State system with the goal of developing an interdisciplinary and translational agenda aimed at combating the opioid epidemic. In his welcome message, Executive Vice President and Provost Nicholas Jones stressed to attendees that “the rapid growth and spread of the opioid epidemic and its tragic consequences demand our faculty’s best efforts. Our faculty can and will make a significant difference in addressing this alarming problem in Pennsylvania and beyond.”

“The summit was an opportunity for us to talk about our work and learn about one another’s expertise toward developing novel research and community collaborations and identifying a distinctive leadership role for the University in combating the opioid crisis,” said Susan McHale, director of the Social Science Research Institute (SSRI) which hosted the event.

The summit featured 14 flash talks on topics ranging from the neuroscience of opioid addiction treatment outcomes, to estimating societal costs due to the epidemic. Other projects shared by Penn State researchers included identification of opioid trafficking networks, establishing community-university collaborations for prevention programs, building a state integrative data system to address policy questions, evaluation of state prescription drug monitoring programs, and more.

“The event was an opportunity for our faculty to make new connections that can advance research aimed at combating the opioid crisis,” explained Sue Grigson, director of the Penn State Addiction Center for Translation. “Our goal is to promote research that can provide policy makers, practitioners and community leaders with information that can be translated into positive impacts on people across the Commonwealth and beyond.”

In addition to flash talks, the summit featured roundtable discussion sessions on topics related to combating the opioid epidemic, including criminal justice, family and child welfare, and the neuroscience and social psychology of addiction.

“Penn State’s land-grant mission, its large infrastructure and geographic reach, and its established relationships with agencies, educators, communities and alumni, provide distinctive strengths that can be leveraged to address this important issue. Through the University's multifaceted outreach channels we can deliver evidence-based learning, foster new discoveries, and facilitate engagement opportunities that will surely make a significant impact,” said roundtable discussion leader Tracey Huston, interim vice president for outreach and associate vice president for marketing and enrollment services.

The summit concluded with an announcement of seed funding supported by SSRI, the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, the Huck Institutes for the Life Sciences, and the College of Medicine, that will increase the quantity and quality of interdisciplinary opioid research by Penn State faculty.

“We seek interdisciplinary Penn State teams to develop novel translational research programs — from discovery-oriented research to dissemination and implementation science,” said McHale. “Priority will be given to projects that make a convincing case for how the research can advance solutions to the opioid crisis.”

The summit was co-sponsored by the Penn State Colleges of Agricultural Sciences, Education, Health and Human Development, Information Sciences and Technology, the Liberal Arts, Medicine, and Nursing; Bellasario College of Communications; Penn State Law; the Office of the Vice President for Commonwealth Campuses; Penn State Outreach and Online Education; the Addiction Center for Translation; the Center for Applied Studies in Health Economics; the Center for Health Care and Policy Research; the Center for Education Disparities Research; the Clearinghouse for Military Family Readiness; the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network; the Justice Center for Research; the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center; the Population Research Institute; the Clinical and Translational Science Institute; and the Rock Ethics Institute.