Development of Novel Drugs and Human Cell-Based Screening Platforms to Treat Pain and Opioid Use Disorder


The Research Need

New, safe interventions are needed to combat opioid misuse and addiction and to treat pain. Scientists need more accurate research models to understand how potential new drugs will affect humans, and they also must identify existing drugs or develop new therapies that could be effective treatments for pain and opioid misuse and addiction.

About the Program

NIH will provide a suite of translational science resources and technical expertise to investigators in the area of pain and addiction. These include:

Program Details

Collaboration Opportunities for Developing Drugs and Human Cell-Based Testing Platforms for Pain, Addiction, and Overdose

This program fosters collaboration among pre-clinical researchers in the extramural community and experts at NCATS to advance knowledge about the underlying biology of pain, addiction, and overdose, develop new interventions to treat them, and determine which interventions are most effective. Collaborators bring a wealth of background knowledge and a starting point for a particular project, and NCATS scientists bring an equivalent wealth of knowledge in translation and the expertise to transform those starting points into useful tools and platforms for drug development.

Opportunities for collaboration fall into two general categories:

  • Novel human cell-based screening platforms
  • Pharmacological probe and pre-clinical drug development

ASPIRE Design Challenges to Develop Innovative and Catalytic Approaches Towards Solving the Opioid Crisis

The goal of the 2018 NCATS ASPIRE Design Challenges is to generate innovative and catalytic approaches toward solving the opioid crisis through the development of next-generation addiction-free analgesics with new chemistries, data-mining, and analytical tools and technologies, as well as biological assays that will revolutionize discovery, development, and pre-clinical testing of new and safer treatments for pain, opioid use disorder (OUD), and overdose.

This prize competition was implemented through concurrent companion design challenges in these areas:

  • Integrated chemistry database
  • Electronic synthetic chemistry portal
  • Predictive algorithms
  • Biological assays
  • Combination of two or more areas

Tissue Chips to Model Nociception, Addiction, and Overdose

This initiative will use human tissue to create microphysiological systems (MPS), also known as tissue chips or “organs-on-chips,” to understand the mechanisms underlying nociception (the nervous system’s response to painful stimuli), pain-relevant and addiction-relevant mechanisms, overdose, and OUD-related pathophysiologies. These MPS models will then be used to test new therapies to improve pain management and treat opioid addiction. The use of MPS will allow reliable pre-clinical testing of potential therapeutics and inform clinical trial design.

Through the Helping to End Addiction Long-termSM Initiative, or NIH HEAL InitiativeSM, NIH awarded 5 research grants, which total approximately $158.2 million. 

The funded research is divided into two phases. In the first phase, the researchers will develop and validate proposed tissue chips that model nociception, pain, addiction, or OUD-like pathophysiologies. In the second phase, the researchers will test the functionality of these tissue chips to understand the pain pathway mechanisms, identify new treatments, or improve treatment efficacy.

  • Tulane University – Louisiana
  • University of California, Los Angeles – California
  • University of Central Florida – Florida
  • University of Pittsburgh – Pennsylvania
  • University of Texas, Dallas – Texas

Funded Projects

hiPSC-based DRG Tissue Mimics on Multi-well Microelectrode Arrays as a Tissue Chip Model of Acute and Chronic Nociception
Mar 19, 2020
Human Microphysiological Model of Afferent Nociceptive Signaling
Mar 19, 2020
Joint Pain on a Chip: Mechanistic Analysis, Therapeutic Targets, and an Empirical Strategy for Personalized Pain Management
Mar 19, 2020
Multi-organ human-on-a-chip system to address overdose and acute and chronic efficacy and off-target toxicity
Mar 19, 2020
Mar 19, 2020

Closed Funding Opportunities

HEAL Initiative: Announcement of the NCATS ASPIRE Design Challenges to Develop Innovative and Catalytic Approaches Towards Solving the Opioid Crisis
Sep 25, 2019