Column: NKU conference could be the start of a regional collaboration on heroin

Column: NKU conference could be the start of a regional collaboration on heroin
Posted at 7:25 AM, Oct 14, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-14 08:21:51-04

For lots of reasons, this part of the country -- Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, West Virginia -- has been hit harder than most by the heroin and opioid epidemic.

What if some of the best brains in these states would put their heads together and work on the problem? Could they figure out how we might emerge from this catastrophe?

That’s beginning to happen.

Next month, researchers from several states will gather at Northern Kentucky University in the first of what is planned as an ongoing partnership of some of the brightest minds in the Ohio Valley.

Researchers from Northern Kentucky University, Wright State University, West Virginia University and Eastern Tennessee State will convene at NKU on Nov. 10.

A meeting of such minds deserves a good name -- this is called the Ohio River Valley Addiction Research Consortium.

The first meeting will be devoted to neonatal abstinence syndrome, more commonly understood as babies born addicted. It’s a problem that's growing quickly and affecting the most vulnerable people of all -- newborns. What a way to start your life.

In Kentucky alone, the number of babies born addicted doubled in just the three years between 2011 and 2014. The number has continued growing since then.

The NKU collaboration came about after an op-ed written by Sam Quinones, the author of the bestseller “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.”

READ: This region could be a worldwide center for addiction research

In the column, Quinones suggested the universities of this region come together to form a worldwide center for the study of the causes of addiction.

He wrote: “You have a constellation of great university medical centers at Ohio State, Cincinnati, Kentucky, Louisville, and West Virginia. At Shawnee State (Portsmouth), Northern Kentucky (Highland Heights), Marshall (Huntington) enrollments are swelling with recovering addicts studying social work and addiction counseling. They could prove eager workers in these studies.”

And he went further:

“Regional cooperation is key ... It’s time to leverage brainpower of like-minded people and regions. Six senators and a dozen or so congressmen could form an Addiction Research & Solutions Caucus to expand federal research grants. Add to that three governors, several college presidents and many researchers.”

Are you listening Governor John Kasich? Senator Rob Portman? UC President Neville Pinto?

The four universities that make up the core group are getting the ball rolling. They’ll need the help of bigger universities -- think UC, Ohio State, Kentucky -- and the political pull of legislative leaders in those states.

NKU Vice Provost Samantha Langley is the point person on this collaboration.

“We can play a unique role in the region if we collaborate,” she told me. “We could be what Boston is to cancer research.”

It could happen.

Let’s hope the November conference is the beginning of a sustained commitment that will grow to include other research institutions and policy makers.

We are living through what is arguably the biggest public health disaster of our time. We can and should -- learn from it.