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Penn Medicine is launching a new Center of Excellence to combat opioid addiction amid the nationwide crisis.  (File Photo)

Penn Medicine announced it was launching a new Center of Excellence on Aug. 26 to combat opioid addiction.

The Penn Addiction Center of Excellence will bring together researchers from the Radiology and Psychiatry Departments to better understand and improve the treatment for opioid use disorder. The Center will study the impacts of opioids on the brain in order to develop new treatments for opioid addiction.

“The opioid crisis is a catastrophe for the country, which many people have suffered and lost their lives,” said Henry Kranzler, psychiatry professor and director of the Center for Studies of Addiction at the Perelman School of Medicine.

On the same day that Penn launched its Center, an Oklahoma state court judge fined pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson more than $500 million for misleading opioid advertising, which resulted in addiction and deaths. 

Approximately 47,055 people died from drug overdoses in the United States in 2014, according to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. Of those deaths, 61% involved opioids, double the rate from 2000.

Robert Mach, radiology professor and director of the PET Radiochemistry Program at Penn, said uniting the research groups from different fields will expand existing knowledge of opioid use disorder. 

“It is a top priority for NIDA [National Institute on Drug Abuse] to do research to better understand the mechanism of opioid use disorder, so that we can come up with better treatment to combat the condition,” Mach said.

Opioid use disorder, also known as opioid addiction, is the physical and psychological reliance on opioids, which usually requires long-term treatment and care.

The Penn Addiction Center of Excellence is funded through a five-year, $8.9 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s P30 Grant Program. 

Opioid addiction is the physical and psychological reliance on opioids, which usually requires long-term treatment and care. (Dream Weaver | CC BY 2.0)

The researchers will initially focus on opioid receptors in opioid sensitivity, addiction, and suicide, according to a press release.

“[PACE] can help the world better understand the neurobiology of opioid use disorder and thereby identify novel approaches to treatment,” Kranzler said.

Mach said PACE will be using positron emission tomography, or PET, imaging techniques to study the molecular change in brain function because of opioid use disorder.

While the collaboration of the two departments can potentially lead to better results, it also poses challenges to the researchers in the group. 

“One of the difficulties with combining researchers from two very different fields is the ‘language barrier’ between them,” Kranzler added. “Radiologist often don't speak the same ‘language’ as physiatrists, and vice versa.”

But the two departments are working to bridge the differences. Kranzler said there are already multiple ongoing projects between the two departments, which lay the groundwork for this project.

In April, Penn held a forum on the opioid crisis, headlined by former Vice President Joe Biden, Penn President Amy Gutmann, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Mayor of Philadelphia Jim Kenney, Penn professor of emergency medicine Jeanmarie Perrone, and Harvard professor of psychobiology Bertha Madras. 

At the event, the experts stressed the severity of the nationwide opioid crisis, extolled the benefits of decriminalizing addiction, and emphasized the need to change American culture to reduce dependence on opioids.