Thursday, October 14, 2010

Who Controls Addiction Research?

The ongoing merger wars at the NIH.

As researchers await the National Institute of Health director’s decision on the matter of merging the nation’s two major addiction research agencies, interested parties to the dispute continued to wonder whether the alcoholic beverage industry will weigh in on the matter—with cash.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) exist within the large institutional framework of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and operate under mandates that overlap enough to make them prime candidates for a cost-saving consolidation. Advocates of the merger, most of them advocates for NIDA, also suggest that the research itself will improve as a result of a decrease in “overlapping missions.” (See my earlier post.)

Recently, Nature News suggested the possibility of efforts against the merger from another interested party: “Although the alcohol industry is unlikely to relish its legal product being lumped in for study with street drugs such as cocaine and heroin, it has so far remained silent. US Trade groups including the Beer Institute, the Wine Institute, the American Beverage Institute and the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States all declined to comment for this article.”

DrugMonkey, an anonymous NIH-funded researcher, has noted on his blog: “I’m still betting [the beverage industry’s] entire strategy (if they actually care about this, which I suspect they do) is going to be by trying to get a pet Congress Critter or two to oppose the plan. Spirited opposition can probably block the whole plan.”

 DrugMonkey even notes that by one common yardstick—recent success rates for grant applicants—NIAAA has actually put up better numbers than its larger cousin, NIDA, “something that NIAAA people have been quietly bragging about for the past several years.”

There have been other rumblings. Behind the scenes, some NIAAA proponents have criticized NIDA’s Nora Volkow for what they see as a heavy-handed attempt on her part to steamroll any opposition to the merger.  The battle lines were clearly drawn earlier this year when Volkow testified before the Scientific Management Review Board. Quoted in the NIH Record, a National Institutes of Health publication, Volkow said that “all psychiatric disorders have similar roots involving combinations of genes and environment…. it is a serious problem, a devastating problem, whether you are talking about alcohol or drugs.”  The NIDA director also said she was “impatient” with progress on the matter, arguing that the separation of resources had already resulted in missed research opportunities. “Why put roadblocks in the way of treatment and prevention?”

At the same meeting, acting NIAAA director Dr. Kenneth Warren offered up what has come to be seen as the basic counter-argument: “The best way forward is a structure that increases collaboration all across NIH… nothing is gained by structural merger.” Warren said he favored “a separate, but equal” pair of agencies. “Alcoholism is a much broader issue than simply addiction.”

Here is where it starts to get tricky. The assertion that alcoholism is not simply an addiction distills the disagreement down to its essence, which can be found not so much within the arena of science as within the arenas of morality, ethics, and the law. NIH Director Francis Collins told Science (sub. required): “Alcohol is after all a legal substance and 90% of us at some point in our lives are comfortable with taking it in while the drug abuse institute is largely focused on drugs that are not legal.”

As Maia Szalavitz wrote at TIME Healthland:

There's another, somewhat moralistic argument for keeping the institutes separate. As Dr. Deborah Hasin argued at a February national advisory meeting on the question, “[There is] a need for a public health message more nuanced for alcohol than for drugs, including nicotine. In contrast with drugs, light drinking is not “bad.'’ It was a curious statement from a scientist who is supposedly charged with studying the effects of psychoactive substances objectively.

Does the NIAAA really have any solid, science-based arguments against the creation of a combined research agency?

Just ask them. Officially, the NIAAA has a very long list of reasons why they are just saying no to the merger—which looks, from the NIAAA point of view, more like an acquisition, anyway. Here are some of acting director Warren’s arguments, taken from an appendix to the minutes of the February 3-4 meeting of the National Advisory Council to the NIAAA, over which Warren presided:

--Alcohol use disorders are different than drug addiction. "The genetics of alcoholism differs from the genetics of drug addiction. Prospective studies have shown that the sons of alcoholics are at greater risk for alcoholism than for drug dependence.”

--The existence of certain commonalities in the brain pathways that mediate the rewarding effects of alcohol and other drugs of abuse does not justify the merger of NIAAA and NIDA. "The fact that dopamine is an important neurotransmitter in signaling reward associated with motivational stimuli does not provide a strong rationale for merging institutes.”

 --Most people with AUDs (alcohol use disorders) do not abuse other drugs.  “The large size of the population with AUDs who don’t abuse other drugs and the enormous public health burden of their illness justify NIAAA’s focused approach to research on AUDs, separate from drug dependence.”

--Alcohol differs from other drugs of abuse in the degree to which heavy use damages the brain and other organs. "Alcohol damages multiple organ systems through common mechanisms of toxicity, including oxidative stress, the disruption of critical cell signaling systems, and the generation of toxic metabolites, cytokines, and chemokines. The coordinated study of these multiple organ toxicities is best suited to a single alcohol Institute.”

--The systems approach is essential to the study of alcohol beneficial and adverse effects. "The merger of NIAAA with NIDA to form a new Institute focused on addiction would orphan and dissociate critical programs focused on alcohol and cardiovascular health, liver disease, pancreatitis, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, immune disorders, myopathy, neuropathy, and brain disorders.”

Almost all of these contentions are open to debate. I believe some of them are just plain wrong. Nonetheless, the notion that a merger of two or more sprawling federal agencies will automatically streamline and strengthen government operations is equally open to question (See Department of Homeland Security). 

But the greater weight of logic, it seems, continues to tip the argument in the direction of a merger. Legal or illegal should have very little to do with it. David Rosenbloom, director of Join Together, said in an excellent article by Bob Curley that a single NIH addiction institute could “yield important science and public health benefits.”

Rosenbloom added that “many individuals with addiction use alcohol and tobacco and drugs at the same time. A broad addiction institute may be better able to design and sponsor clinical, basic, and health services research that matches this real-world reality instead of focusing on just one substance at a time.”


Anonymous said...

Great post Dirk.

Anonymous said...

Untreated addiction is often fatal,
Thank you for your passion.

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