Arkansas Children’s establishes center investigating opioids’ effect on kids

By: - November 9, 2023 4:07 pm
Arkansas Children's main campus in Little Rock

Arkansas Children’s main campus in Little Rock (Courtesy of Arkansas Children’s Hospital)

Arkansas Children’s is creating a $70-million center focused on opioids’ impact on children, officials announced Thursday.

The National Center for Opioid Research & Clinical Effectiveness (NCOR) will accelerate development of effective evidence-based treatments that improve child health and inform state and national policy efforts, according to a press release

Opioids are the leading cause of poisoning deaths in children under the age of five in the United States, according to research published in the journal Pediatrics

Arkansas has the second-highest dispensing rate for opioids in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“The opioid crisis has devastated Arkansas families, and we see the impact in our NICU, clinics and ER every day,” Arkansas Children’s president and CEO Marcy Doderer said. “By creating this center, we are accelerating a healthier future for the children of Arkansas. The brilliant capacity of the team already on the ground and those we will recruit will create a better today and healthier tomorrow for the unbelievable number of children who suffer in the opioid crisis’ wake.”

Arkansas receives first payment in $26 billion national opioid settlement

Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin is awarding $50 million of opioid settlement funds to Arkansas Children’s to support the center. The attorney general’s office is responsible for administering the state’s share of national opioid court settlements to fund opioid remediation.

“NCOR will be a game changer for our children,” Griffin said. “This research center will be the first of its kind, not just in Arkansas but in the entire country. It will put our state on the front line of saving future generations from the scourge of opioid addiction and on the map as the center for pediatric opioid research in the United States.”

Arkansas Children’s will build the center around brain imaging technology, which will equip experts to better study how opioids affect children’s developing brains. The enhanced imaging capability will also help scientists better understand what parts of the brain are at play so they can design prevention methods and therapies, according to the release.

The center will host collaborative space to lead multicenter clinical trials, offer telehealth capabilities and build an advanced analytics and informatics infrastructure focused on statistical analysis and machine learning. Arkansas Children’s will also use toxicology capabilities to refine techniques to quickly detect opioids, including newer synthetic opioids that escape detection of many testing platforms.

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Scientists will work closely with the Arkansas Children’s Research Institute and Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center, one of six National Human Nutrition Centers funded through the Agricultural Research Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific in-house research agency.

The health system will also draw on an existing network of partnerships and collaborations to move what is learned at the center directly into the community to decrease opioid use and abuse, according to the release. This will include an electronic game-based adolescent prescription-drug prevention program delivered through schools, community outreach programs and other venues.

The project is expected to cost $70 million, and Arkansas Children’s will provide the funds beyond the opioid settlement proceeds. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2024 on the 45,000-square-foot facility, which will be located in the research corridor of the health system’s Little Rock campus.

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Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.