BLACKSBURG, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia Tech’s Department of Chemical Engineering has received $3.5 million to study the impacts of adolescent exposure to opioids.

The National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse has granted $3.5 million to Virginia Tech, which will fund a five-year research on how adolescent exposure may contribute to opioid addiction.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, opioids are currently the main driver of drug overdose deaths. A 2021 report finds over 75% of the nearly 107,000 drug overdose deaths that year involved an opioid.

Virginia Tech says adolescent exposure to opioids may come from a minor taking a prescribed opioid medication for a sports injury, or from the feeling of abandonment they may experience from parental opioid addiction.

Chang Lu, Fred W. Bull Professor of Chemical Engineering and graduate chair, will serve as the contact principal investigator of the research and lead the department’s study.

“When adolescents are injured during sports, they are often prescribed strong pain relievers that contain opioids,” Lu said. “It is important to understand what footprint such early exposure leaves in a developing brain, in terms of epigenetic alterations.”

According to Lu, engineers have unique skills that can help grasp the chemistry, biotechnology and process engineering that explains how addiction surfaces, and then have the ability to create new processes and products to alleviate the societal problems associated with drug addiction.