This week, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander launched the first hearings on a sweeping response to the opioid crisis. Alexander chairs the Senate's health committee.
A key component of the proposal is funding for the National Institutes of Health to come up with a painkiller that's as effective as opiates like Oxycontin and Percocet but isn't so dangerously addictive.
"If we can find a non-addictive pain medicine, then that to me is the antidote to opioids," Alexander said. "I'd call that the ‘holy grail’ of our efforts to stem the opioid crisis."
The legislation would clarify that the FDA could fast-track development of non-opioid pain treatments.
The NIH is already funding a study led by the University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill that published preliminary results early this year that researchers considered promising. They learned more about opioid receptors in the body and showed that it could be possible to make a "drug-like compound" that could work better than current opioids.
"To create better opioids, we need to know the structure of their receptors," senior author Bryan Roth said in a press release. "Until recently, this was impossible."
The federal opioid package would also fund studies to see if prescribing restrictions — like the proposed 3-day limit in Tennessee — are effective or have unintended consequences.
Read a congressional summary here. Other key components include:
- Give authority to the FDA to put opioids in blister packs and require drug manufacturers to oversee disposal
- Provide grants for comprehensive opioid recovery centers
- Make permanent the law that allows nurse practitioners and physician assistants to prescribe drugs that treat opioid addiction
The legislation is on a tight timeline. Alexander is pushing for a full senate vote later this month.