UCSF Receives 10 NIH Grants to Study Pain and Opioid Addiction

By Nina Bai

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded 10 grants this year to UC San Francisco researchers as part of the NIH Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative.

The awards to UCSF total more than $40 million and will fund projects ranging from better technologies for MRI imaging of back pain, to the use of deep-brain stimulation for treating chronic pain, to a new interdisciplinary research center for low back pain.

In 2016, an estimated 50 million U.S. adults suffered from chronic pain – generally defined as pain that lasts more than three months – and low back pain, headaches, arthritis, neuropathy and other forms cost about $635 billion annually. In 2018, an estimated 10.3 million Americans age 12 and older misused opioids, including heroin.

Several of the grants to UCSF focus on low back pain, a common yet hard-to-treat condition. According to the Global Burden of Disease 2010 Study, low back pain ranked highest in terms of years lived with disability, yet no consistently effective and durable pharmacologic intervention exists for chronic low back pain, though opioids are a common treatment.

The largest of the new grants, $29.4 million, will go to creating the Core Center for Patient-centric Mechanistic Phenotyping in Chronic Low Back Pain (REACH) at UCSF, an interdisciplinary consortium of basic and clinical scientists working to define different types of chronic low back pain and pain mechanisms that may lead to effective, personalized treatments for patients. REACH will be led by Jeffrey C. Lotz, PhD, professor and vice chair of research in Orthopaedic Surgery.

Other UCSF projects that received HEAL funding:

  • Aaron Fields, PhD, associate professor of Orthopaedic Surgery, and Roland Krug, PhD, associate professor of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging, are leading a $3.6 million award ($1.1 million for phase I) for their team to develop new MRI methods for measuring endplate pathologies (endplates separate discs and vertebrae in the spine) to better select patients for non-addictive and minimally invasive treatments.
  • Sharmila Majumdar, PhD, the Margaret Hart Surbeck Distinguished Professor of Advanced Imaging, received $4.39 million ($513,742 for phase I) for her team to improve imaging of low back pain, including developing deep-learning-based technologies for faster image reconstruction, tissue segmentation and spinal degeneration detection.
  • Prasad Shirvalkar, MD, PhD, assistant professor of Anesthesiology, received $7.56 million to improve deep brain stimulation for chronic pain, which has shown early promise. Shirvalkar’s team aims to develop long-term implants for intracranial stimulation from multiple brain sites that automatically adjust to personalized brain signals of pain. He is collaborating with Edward Chang, MD, and Philip Starr, MD, professors of Neurological Surgery and members of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, on this project.
  • Michael McManus, PhD, professor in the UCSF Diabetes Center, and Lily Jan, PhD, professor of Physiology, were awarded $500,000 to better understand the function of ion channels, which are critical to the nervous system. They aim to generate data and reagents for poorly characterized ion channels, to illuminate the underlying interacting genetic components, and ultimately to identify ion channel phenotypes relevant to human disease.
  • James Sorensen, PhD, professor of Psychiatry, was awarded five grants totaling $2.62 million to study the efficacy of early interventions to prevent the progression from risky opioid use to opioid use disorder. His team will test a subthreshold opioid use disorder prevention (STOP) intervention program in the primary care setting, which consists of a practice-embedded nurse care manager who provides patient education and monitoring, advice delivered by the primary care physician, and phone counseling.  

The NIH launched the HEAL Initiative in April 2018 to speed scientific solutions to stem the national opioid public health crisis. It aims to prevent addiction through enhanced pain management and to improve treatment for opioid misuse disorder and addiction. This year, the HEAL Initiative has awarded $945 million to approximately 375 projects nationwide.

“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 addition to opioids,” NIH Director Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD, said in a press release about the awards. “This unprecedented investment in the NIH Heal Initiative demonstrates the commitment to reversing this devastating crisis.”