UTHSC Symposium on Drug Addiction and Abuse Encourages University and Community Collaboration

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Charlie Caswell, activist and executive director of Legacy of Legends, was a featured presenter for the inaugural Symposium on Drug Abuse and Addiction at UTHSC. Caswell discussed adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in the home, and how they can impact children in various environments. (Photo by Alan Burns/UTHSC)

Memphis community advocates and faculty from UTHSC came together at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center for a symposium to discuss drug abuse and addiction in Tennessee and its negative impact on overall health outcomes.

The Symposium on Drug Abuse and Addiction, the first in what is hoped will be a series of symposiums and meetings on the topic, was sponsored by the College of Medicine. It featured research being conducted at UTHSC with grant support from the National Institutes of Health, along with community advocates in Memphis.

As reported recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association, longevity in the United States decreased for the 25-60 age range between 2010-2017 due to the increasing numbers of deaths from drug addiction, alcohol abuse, and suicide.

Burt Sharp, MD, the symposium organizer, explained that bringing together the community and scientific aspects of addiction treatment is a necessary first step in addressing these issues in Memphis and across Tennessee.

“Where we, as faculty in the College of Medicine, come in is through a huge commitment we’ve made to reduce addiction and drug abuse disorders through research that we are conducting at UTHSC,” Dr. Sharp said. “We hope this meeting will foster discussion and an overall framework that we can use to strengthen our research and community outreach.”

The half-day event brought together members of various community-wide initiatives and UTHSC researchers to discuss best practices and science applications for the drug abuse and addiction problem. Among those from the Memphis community was Charlie Caswell, the executive director of Legacy of Legends.

Caswell, a long-time activist, discussed the problems he has seen in Memphis and how his team is working with schools to address trauma at home and in schools, which can result in bigger issues that lead to drug abuse. His specific focus is on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in the home, which can create broader issues in a child’s future.

“People often look at the limbs of a tree and the fruit it bears, but they don’t pay attention to the tree’s roots,” Caswell said, referencing issues in the home. “If you have good roots, and we can hopefully help here, then you will have good fruit.”

Dr. John B. Woods

John Woods, MD, director of the Center for Addiction Science at UTHSC, addressed the specific addiction numbers and statistics in Tennessee. He noted that there have been 1,304 opioid-linked deaths in Tennessee in 2019, an increase of more than 13 times the number 20 years ago. At the same time, there are only eight fellowship-trained addiction medicine physicians in Tennessee. Dr. Woods pointed out that addiction medicine is still in its infancy, which elevates the importance of the clinical research currently ongoing at UTHSC.

“People who come to our clinics receive the respect that they deserve and may not see at clinics that are not geared towards treating addiction,” he said. “This is important to me, and I believe we all share an implicit value in human life and are working toward improving it.”

Faculty from UTHSC presented research models on specific drug abuse and clinical research. The research presentations included studies into the abuse of oxycodone, cocaine, and prenatal alcohol, as well as clinical research presentations on these drugs.

The symposium ended with a discussion led by Scott Strome, MD, executive dean of the College of Medicine. Emphasis was placed on bringing together members of UTHSC and the community to form partnerships and more closely collaborate on future work. The group was empowered to develop a strategic plan to strengthen addiction research and community outreach. A core group will initiate these discussions and involve all those who were present at the symposium.

Dr. Sharp hopes the symposium and the follow-up events will allow UTHSC and the community to learn about the research and clinical practices ongoing in the CoM, identify opportunities for collaboration between UTHSC addiction science and treatment programs in the community, and discover opportunities for meaningful links with community caregivers.