Researchers awarded $1M to combat opioid epidemic using AI

Researchers at West Virginia University (WVU) were awarded a $1 million grant from the National Institute of Justice to develop novel AI techniques to combat the opioid epidemic and opioid trafficking. The funding will be provided over a three-year period.

A majority of Americans see the opioid crisis as a “very” or “somewhat serious” problem in their state. At the federal level, attempts are being made to curtail fatalities.

According to the most recent statistics published in JAMA, opioid overdoses resulted in 48,000 deaths in 2017 and will continue to rise. The researchers determined opioid deaths will likely rise between 2016 to 2025—a total of 700,400 individuals will die from opioid misuse. 

“As of today, we still lack deep insight into the online ecosystem of opioid trafficking,” Yanfang Ye, PhD, assistant professor of computer science and electrical engineering at WVU, said in a prepared statement. “In addition to offline data, utilizing AI technologies to obtain knowledge and recognize patterns from online data across the darknet and surface net could provide valuable investigative leads, which might greatly facilitate law enforcement’s ability to prevent, respond to and disrupt opioid trafficking networks.”

Ye and colleague Xin Li, professor of computer science and electrical engineering at WVU, will design and develop new AI technologies to automate the analysis of the traditional internet and the darknet to provide leads to law enforcement agencies in an effort to combat opioid abuse in the country.

AI-based techniques couldn’t come at a better time and, according to the JAMA researchers, a “multi-pronged” approach is needed to change the course of the epidemic. President Trump signed a package of opioid bills at the end of 2018 and the FDA recently announced it would help fast-track over-the-counter (OTC) versions of naloxone, which can reverse opioid overdoses.

“Addressing urgent and significantly complex societal problems such as opioid addiction requires multiple angles and an interdisciplinary approach,” said Pradeep Fulay, associate dean for research at WVU. “Dr. Ye and Dr. Li will use sophisticated pattern recognition research that can have a significant impact on disrupting the supply chain underlying opioid trafficking.”