Fifty million dollars of Arkansas’s opioid crisis settlement money will fund a state-of-the-art research facility at Arkansas Children’s Hospital devoted to studying the connections between pediatrics and opioids, Attorney General Tim Griffin announced today.
Hospital helicopters and storm clouds drifted over a white pop-up tent at 11 Children’s Way this morning as details about the $70 million facility were relayed by by Marcy Doderer, president and CEO at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, and Rick Barr, the hospital’s executive vice president and chief clinical and academic officer. Groundbreaking on the 45,000-square-foot facility is expected in late 2024.
“We truly do still sit in epidemic proportions when it comes to the opioid crisis,” Doderer said. Opioids, she said, are the leading cause of fatal poisoning in children 5 years old and younger. “Babies exposed to opioids before birth are more likely to experience abnormal neurodevelopment, have learning impairments and face behavioral health challenges,” a press release from the hospital stated. “These children are also much more likely to struggle with substance abuse as they grow up.”
The funding for the new research facility at Children’s is part of the $250 million Arkansas stands to collect over the next dozen years in settlement money won in litigation against the pharmaceutical companies, drug store chains and other businesses that profited from the nation’s prescription opioid epidemic.
A lawsuit filed against 65 opioid manufacturers, distributors and criminally convicted pharmacies and health care professionals yielded a settlement fortune to be divided, as literature from the Association of Arkansas Counties details, evenly “among the state, counties and cities — one-third of every Arkansas dollar is allocated to the state, one-third of every Arkansas dollar is allocated to cities and one-third of every Arkansas dollar is allocated to counties.” The $50 million in funding to build NCOR is part of the state’s one-third allotment.
“I have money,” Griffin said at the press conference, recounting a phone call he made to Doderer earlier this year. “And I want to do something significant and lasting.” Urging hospital leadership to dream up a proposal aimed at opioid abatement — a requirement for any funds used from the state’s opioid settlement money — Griffin said he’d encouraged Doderer et al. to “think big.”
The team, Griffin said, handed him a proposal for an abatement project with a price tag of $10 million. “I said, ‘Here’s the problem with that project,'” Griffin continued. “Once it’s done, there will be benefits, but not infrastructure … It’ll be ephemeral. I think we need a brick-and-mortar.”
The amended proposal: a National Center for Opioid Research & Clinical Effectiveness (NCOR for short) focused on opioid abatement and on “understanding the impacts of the opioid crisis on the fetus, newborn and developing children.” Hospital representatives expect “some work to happen in the next 18 months,” an email stated. “National recruitment for a center director will begin immediately, and that process will inform next steps on additional team recruitment.”
Arkansas Children’s Hospital pediatrician and researcher Pete Mourani will lead those recruitment efforts, and will steer much of the center’s development in its initial phases. Mourani is currently the site principal investigator and steering committee member for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development-supported Collaborative Pediatric Critical Care Research Network, which performs clinical research in the field of pediatric critical illness and injury. He’ll be joined by researcher William Steinbach, who is affiliated with both the children’s hospital and with UAMS, and who for the past 20 years has led a National Institute of Health-funded multidisciplinary clinical care and research programs.
The center will have “three distinct aims,” Barr stated. “First: to construct a 45,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility housing equipment and technology to support our teams who are tackling this crisis directly.”
That includes, he said, “a nationally recognized brain imaging center, a clinical research unit, advanced analytics, and informatics, expertise and telehealth capabilities.” The second aim, Barr continued, is “to lead pioneering research to improve detection and treatment of opioid exposure in children, including community engagement models for adolescent opioid use prevention.”
Lastly, he said, the center will “conduct longitudinal studies to assess the impact of prenatal and neonatal opioid exposure on the developmental and behavioral outcomes of infants and children.”