Thursday, February 1, 2018

Opioid deaths in Iowa have increased by 250 percent in the past decade, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control predicts the state will see even greater increases over the next five years if current trends hold. 


Rural areas are being hit hardest, with the drugs impacting the lives and livelihoods of individuals, families, and entire communities.


Barring decisive, coordinated, and creative interventions, Iowa is poised to join a club no one wants to belong to: states struggling with a full-blown opioid epidemic.


“We know what’s coming, and it’s going to get a whole lot worse,” said Dr. Chris Buresh, a clinical professor of emergency medicine at the University of Iowa. “We have a chance to do something about it, and we won’t likely have this opportunity again.”


Buresh is helping lead an effort to harness the university’s expertise to develop strategies for slowing, stopping, or reversing opioid abuse among Iowans. From April 9-11, the UI Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development (OVPR&ED) is holding an “Ideas Lab,” where it will bring together 30 faculty and staff members from various disciplines to discuss the challenges and brainstorm possible solutions.


Those interested in participating in the Ideas Lab are invited to apply now through February 14. 


After distilling the most promising ideas from the April event, Buresh said the UI hopes to form teams and develop major research grant proposals as well as boots-on-the-ground projects to turn the tide in Iowa.


“I’ve been here 15 years, and every week I find someone with incredible expertise in some field I’ve never heard of that is fascinating,” Buresh said. “We are really in a unique position to apply our resources to this problem and, hopefully, have an impact.”


UI President Bruce Harreld encouraged faculty and staff with any interest or expertise in tackling opioid abuse to join the initiative, whether they work in medicine, engineering, public health, social work, art, or education.


“The University of Iowa is an important and indispensable resource to the people of Iowa,” Harreld said. “I believe we have a responsibility as a top public research university to bring all the knowledge and experience we have at our disposal to bear on this growing and deadly problem.”


Opioids are drugs that act on the nervous system to relieve pain and are sometimes prescribed by doctors in the form of codeine, hydrocodone and oxycodone. Illegal opioids include opium and heroin. Their continued use and abuse can lead to physical dependence, withdrawal, overdose, and death.


Nationally, more than two million Americans have become dependent on or abused prescription pain pills and street forms of opioids. In 2016, more Americans died of opioid overdose than in combat during the entire Vietnam War.


Buresh said opioid addiction are accompanied by a host of related and expensive health risks, including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and Hepatitis C acquired by sharing contaminated needles. This puts family members, friends, and first responders caring for people who overdose on opioids in jeopardy.


He said the country’s struggle to solve drug addiction after a 30-year war on drugs demonstrates the problem’s complexity and the challenges facing the UI as it embarks on devising fresh solutions. But he said it’s easier to prevent addiction than to treat it once it takes hold.


“While the immediate focus of our effort is on Iowa, the results of this initiative—if successful—could serve as a model for other states, and the nation,” he said.


OVPR&ED’s Research Development Office is coordinating this initiative, in partnership with the UI College of Public Health, Organizational Effectiveness in University Human Resources, and the Institute for Clinical and Translational Science. RDO offers one-stop “concierge” services to connect researchers and scholars with research administrators and other resources; accelerate discovery and innovation by supporting collaboration, creation, and proposal development; and minimize the administrative burden of research on faculty and staff.


For more information about the initiative, contact Aaron Kline, Research Development Coordinator, at or 319-335-4142.


OVPR&ED provides resources and support to researchers and scholars at the University of Iowa and to businesses across Iowa with the goal of forging new frontiers of discovery and innovation and promoting a culture of creativity that benefits the campus, the state, and the world. More at, and on Twitter: @DaretoDiscover