Illinois connects with NIDA, N.C. A&T to address disparities in substance use

3/8/2023 6:11:19 AM Amy Clay-Moore

In 2020, drug overdose mortality rates rose to record highs referred to as "horrifying" by National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Dr. Nora Volkow in an essay in Scientific American.

“More people died of overdoses in the United States last year than in any other one-year period in our history. More than 93,000 people died. The increase from the previous year was also more than we’ve ever seen—up 30 percent,” Volkow wrote.

In 2021, overdose-related fatalities increased another 15%. To say that our nation is dealing with a drug crisis is an understatement.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a variety of health, social, and economic disparities, including those related to drug use and overdose mortality rates. Despite efforts to address disparities in treatment access and outcomes among minoritized groups, these gaps continue to widen.

The Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Institute, in partnership with North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (N.C. A&T) and NIDA, is leading an effort to spark new ideas and collaborations to address these disparities with the 2023 Achieving Equity Series - Disparities in Substance Use.

The Spring 2023 series will follow a format similar to the 2022 Achieving Equity: Disparities in Mental Health series. The three-part series will occur on three consecutive Tuesdays (March 21, March 28, and April 4):

On March 21, panelists will discuss how N.C. A&T researchers are addressing health disparities and creating a campus NIDA team and research proposal, and their campuswide approach to substance use and mental health treatment. 

On March 28, University of Illinois faculty will present lightning talks on their research on disparities in substance use treatment access and outcomes.

On April 4, program officials from the National Institute on Drug Abuse will discuss federal research funding opportunities with NIDA.

New this year is an opportunity to hear from researchers with the nation’s largest historically Black university, North Carolina A&T. One of the speakers is Robert H. Newman, a professor of biology who will discuss his experience with community-based participatory research. Prof. Newman has collaborated with a large community health and wellness clinic to empower Black men to prevent and/or manage diabetes and to increase collection of biological samples for development of biomarkers of diabetic nephropathy.

“Historically, minority populations—and African Americans in particular—have been underrepresented in clinical trials and related biomedical research studies. As a result, treatment strategies and health policy decisions have often been developed based on data that lack sufficient information about these populations,” Newman said.

Newman goes on to explain why Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), like North Carolina A&T, can shed light on addressing health disparities.

“Through their long-standing and well-established relationships with underrepresented minority populations, HBCUs and other MSIs are uniquely positioned to recruit underrepresented minority populations into research studies. Not only will this help close the information gap and reduce health disparities, but it will also enrich research studies through the unique perspectives that these communities have to offer.”

Participants will also get a chance to hear from NIDA program officials on the agency’s work to address health disparities in substance use.  

Aria Crump, Director of NIDA’s Office of Diversity and Health Disparities, wants to draw the University of Illinois research community’s attention to the variety of ways NIDA prioritizes health equity in their extramural research portfolio. In addition to efforts to develop the pool of independently funded underrepresented scholars and researchers conducting substance use and addiction research, they also prioritize research aimed at reducing disparities.

“Faculty and trainees who conduct research on substance use and substance use disorders, as well as substance-related HIV infection, should know that NIDA supports research to address health equity,” Aria explained, “Several funding announcements are currently active through NIDA’s Racial Equity Initiative, and grant applications submitted through parent announcements may include aims related to diversity issues.”

NIDA program officials will also discuss the agency’s work with community-based participatory research, increasing workforce development of underrepresented researchers and some of the agency’s efforts to address racial equity in substance use research.

“We are excited to share more information with researchers about how NIDA is making deliberate strides to eliminate racism in the scientific workforce and research portfolio,” said Minnjuan Flournoy Floyd, a health scientist administrator with the agency. 

Brandi Barnes, IHSI’s Research Development Manager for Health Equity, believes there are opportunities for a campuswide effort to address disparities in substance use here at University of Illinois. “Illinois researchers are doing some great work in this space. With insights from our colleagues at NC A&T and guidance from NIDA, I am excited to see how our university may replicate North Carolina A&T’s success in creating a campus NIDA team.”

Those interested in attending one or more of the events in the Achieving Equity: Disparities in Substance Use series may register to receive Zoom details.