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UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health researcher Lisa LaVange, PhD, is the PI of an NIH HEAL Initiative project to help people with chronic back pain and to curb opioid misuse. It includes Tim Carey, MD, MPH; Tim Platts-Mills, MD, MSc; and Sam McLean, MD, from the UNC School of Medicine.

To address the opioid crisis in the United States, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded $945 million in funding across 41 states through the Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative. This aggressive research effort aims to improve treatments for chronic pain, curb the rates of opioid use disorder and overdose, and achieve long-term recovery from opioid addiction.

Researchers at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health are leading one of the 375 grant awards that make up the NIH HEAL Initiative. Lisa LaVange, PhD, professor and associate chair in the Gillings School’s Department of Biostatistics, is principal investigator for the five-year $51.781 million grant for the Back Pain Consortium (BACPAC) Research Program Data Integration, Algorithm Development and Operations Management Center (DAC).The BACPAC research program is a translational, patient-centered effort to address the need for effective and personalized therapies for chronic low back pain – one of the most common forms of chronic pain among adults worldwide. Current treatment options are not ineffective for many patients, which has led to an increased use and misuse of opioids. The HEAL initiative includes 13 grants totaling approximately $150 million for BACPAC.

“We are very excited to be selected as the DAC for the BACPAC research program,” said LaVange, who also is director of UNC’s Collaborating Studies Coordinating Center. “As part of this important initiative, we will work with mechanistic research centers, technology research sites, and phase 2 clinical trial groups to deliver an integrated model of chronic lower back pain and explore innovative technologies.”

The UNC team includes experts from Gillings, the UNC School of Medicine, the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, and the UNC College of Arts and Sciences; the investigators represent several more academic units from across campus.

The project period runs September 26, 2019, through May 31, 2024. Anastasia Ivanova, PhD, professor of biostatistics at the Gillings School, is the co-principal investigator. UNC School of Medicine co-investigators are Tim Carey, MD, MPH, the Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Medicine in the Departments of Medicine and Social Medicine; Timothy Platts-Mills, MD, MSc, associate professor, vice-chair of research, and co-director of Geriatric Emergency Medicine in the department of emergency medicine; and Samuel McLean, MD, MPH, research vice chair and professor of anesthesiology and professor of emergency medicine.

“It’s clear that a multi-pronged scientific approach is needed to reduce the risks of opioids, accelerate development of effective non-opioid therapies for pain, and provide more flexible and effective options for treating addiction to opioids,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD, who launched the initiative in early 2018. “This unprecedented investment in the NIH HEAL Initiative demonstrates the commitment to reversing this devastating crisis.”

In 2016, an estimated 50 million U.S. adults suffered from chronic pain and, in 2018, an estimated 10.3 million people 12 years and older in the United States misused opioids, including heroin.

Additional BACPAC DAC co-investigators from UNC include:

Michael Kosorok, PhD, the W.R. Kenan Jr. Professor and Chair in the Gillings School’s Department of Biostatistics; professor in the department of statistics and operations research

Matthew Psioda, PhD, assistant professor of biostatistics at UNC Gillings

Naim Rashid, PhD, assistant professor of biostatistics at UNC Gillings; research assistant professor at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center

Yun Li, PhD, associate professor of biostatistics at UNC Gillings; associate professor in the Department of Genetics; adjunct assistant professor in the department of computer science in the UNC College of Arts and Science

Saianand Balu, director of informatics at Lineberger

Learn more about the NIH HEAL Initiative programs and awards and the opioid crisis.

Other UNC School of Medicine researchers received two one-year grants as part of the NIH HEAL Initiative; they were announced last week.

School of Medicine contact: , 984-974-1915.