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  • Washington Highlights

    NIH Leaders Discuss Substance Use, Cancer Research, and COVID-19


    Christa Wagner, Manager, Government Relations
    Tannaz Rasouli, Sr. Director, Public Policy & Strategic Outreach

    Two National Institutes of Health (NIH) institute directors described in two briefings the role that past and ongoing work is playing in addressing the wide-ranging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and other public health threats.

    The briefings — part of an ongoing series designed for congressional staff and coalition members, “Medical Research & COVID-19: Updates from NIH’s Institutes & Centers” — featured the directors of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

    NIDA Director Nora Volkow, MD
    NIDA Director Nora Volkow, MD

    NIDA Director Nora Volkow, MD, continued the series on Nov. 13, describing the “devastating” impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the opioid crisis. Specifically, the strain COVID-19 has placed on the health care system — in combination with decreased retention in substance use treatment programs and decreased access to the opioid reversal drug naloxone — appears to be leading to increased opioid overdose deaths this year. In addition, increased stress throughout the entire population increases susceptibility to substance use by more Americans than before the pandemic.

    Regarding impacts to research funded by NIDA, Volkow estimated 35%-40% of a year’s worth of resources will be needed to catch up to where research programs were before the pandemic. NIDA conducts several longitudinal studies including the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study of childhood brain development, which has only completed collecting half of the planned brain scan images this year.

    NCI Director Norman “Ned” Sharpless, MD
    NCI Director Norman “Ned” Sharpless, MD

    In the Dec. 4 session, NCI Director Norman “Ned” Sharpless, MD, thanked Congress for its continued bipartisan support for cancer research, reflected on the promising outlook for NCI-sponsored research before the coronavirus, and set the goal of returning to “rapid progress” in 2021. In describing the pandemic’s impacts on research progress, Sharpless said, “Weekly accrual to the larger Phase II and Phase III therapeutic trials … was on the order of 300 [cancer patients] per week prior to the pandemic. When the pandemic began, it plummeted to less than 150 a week.” While the accrual rate is almost back to pre-pandemic levels, he noted that the six-month period of significant drop-offs will have far-reaching effects, including increased time to trial completion and approval of new cancer therapeutics, increased duration of researchers’ training programs that depend on clinical trial outcomes, and the shuttering of some trials due to lack of enrollment.

    Sharpless also described the NCI’s use of $306 million in emergency supplemental funds provided through the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act (P.L. 116-139) [see Washington Highlights, April 24]. Building off a history of research into serology, virology, and immunology, Sharpless said the NCI has worked to develop serological testing to identify coronavirus antibodies in blood samples to evaluate the body’s immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. Data collection from serological studies can provide population data on infection prevalence, identify who is likely to be immune, and quantify an individual’s vaccine response.

    Previous presenters in the series represented the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities and the National Institute of Mental Health in September [see Washington Highlights, Oct. 9] and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the National Institute on Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in October [see Washington Highlights, Oct. 30]. The Ad Hoc Group for Medical Research, which is convened by the AAMC, and the Coalition for Health Funding are co-hosting the briefing series.