Edward Vernon “Ned” Nunes Jr. ’73, P’08 has been named the 2019 Alumni Award recipient. Nunes, who has spent his medical career developing and testing treatments for substance use disorders, will be honored during an All-School Assembly on Friday, October 18.
He is a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center and New York State Psychiatric Institute, and currently co-leads clinical trials that are part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) HEAL Initiative (Help End Addiction in our Lifetime), which studies ways to counter the opioid epidemic.
Nunes sits on the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse, and the HEAL Working Group, advising the NIH Director on the Initiative.
His current work involves testing strategies to improve patients’ adherence to medication treatments for opioid-use disorder, including long-acting medication injections and implants, and technology-based interventions, or “apps,” to help deliver counseling to patients.
“We have very effective medications for opioid-use disorder, which are methadone, buprenorphine, and injection naltrexone. The challenge is to get patients to take them and the health systems to deliver them, and to counter the stigma attached to this disease,” said Nunes.
Another trial he is working on will test a community-level intervention across rural counties that have been severely impacted by the opioid epidemic, with the goal of helping them expand availability of treatment and drive down the rate of opioid- overdose deaths.
After graduating from Hotchkiss, Nunes earned his A.B. from Dartmouth and M.D. from the University of Connecticut and then trained in Internal Medicine at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Boston and psychiatry and psychopharmacology research at Columbia before joining the faculty there in 1987.
He joined a group studying medications for depression, and he and his mentors became interested in depression among patients with addictions. At the time, attention to depression was discouraged by most clinicians, considered just another manifestation of the addiction and a distraction from treating the addiction. Nunes and his colleagues showed that depression could be identified and treated in patients with alcohol or drug problems, improving the outcome of the addiction as well.
He also began studying naltrexone, an opioid receptor blocker that had been virtually abandoned as a treatment for opioid addiction because of poor adherence.
“It works well if taken regularly,” says Nunes. “It basically turns off the brain’s opioid system. Patients crave opioids less and feel nothing if they take heroin or another opioid. But, as a daily pill it was too easy to stop taking the medication and then relapse.”
His group studied behavioral interventions, involving the family to support adherence, and an extended-release injection that puts the naltrexone into the system for a month at a time.
“The injection has turned naltrexone back into a viable treatment alternative, and we are testing even longer-lasting implants.”
Throughout his career, Nunes has emphasized mentorship of younger researchers, helping them to shape their ideas and careers. He also serves as co-chair of the Institutional Review Board, which vets the science and ethics of all the research conducted across Columbia Psychiatry.
Nunes credits Hotchkiss with kindling his interest in psychiatry and medical research.
“I think about Hotchkiss all the time as I go about my work, especially the humanities courses, where I learned to think about complicated situations, challenge assumptions, play with ideas, and the example and leadership of the faculty. It was an inspiring place. I am surprised, deeply honored and humbled to be the recipient of the Alumni Award and look forward to the opportunity to return to the School and share my experiences with the students and the community,” Nunes said.
Since 1931, the Hotchkiss Alumni Association has honored notable alumni with the Alumni Award. Selected by the Nominating Committee of the Board of Governors of the Alumni Association, each recipient has brought honor and distinction to him or herself and Hotchkiss through their achievements. The Nominating/Awards Committee of the Alumni Board of Governors seeks candidates who have made significant contributions in their fields and earned the recognition of their peers on a national or international level.