Office of the President: Establishment of the Be Well Institute on Substance Use and Related Disorders

Dear faculty, staff and students:

The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio is proud to announce the establishment of the Be Well Institute on Substance Use and Related Disorders, a pioneering initiative dedicated to advancing research, education and evidence-based treatments for substance use disorders and related disorders.

The Be Well Institute will be a comprehensive center of excellence for research, clinical and public health programs, education and community engagement. The goal of the institute is to be a nationally premiere substance use and addiction center for clinical care and research to advance the understanding of substance use. The institute will:

  • Support grants and contracts.
  • Partner with organizational entities at UT Health San Antonio whose activities are relevant to these priorities.
  • Provide person-centered, interprofessional, comprehensive care.
  • Launch clinical and translational research programs to significantly advance the understanding of substance use to scientific discovery and into daily practice to improve health and reduce sickness and death.

Spearheaded by the founding director, Jennifer Sharpe Potter, PhD, MPH, the Be Well Institute marks a significant milestone in our institution’s commitment to addressing the complex challenges posed by substance use. The institute will provide compassionate and transformational care for people who use substances and those with substance use disorder or co-occurring mental health disorders. This will be accomplished through innovative research and local networks and engagement, thereby removing the stigma around this topic and supporting recovery for patients, their families and communities.

About the Be Well Institute

With more than $50 million in National Institutes of Health, state and other federal funding annually, the Be Well Institute works as a highly integrated and collaborative center across the university and represents a comprehensive framework for advancing the understanding and treatment of substance use disorders.

Through a diverse array of statewide initiatives, including the Be Well Provider Network, the Be Well Clinic, the Center for Substance Use Training and Telementoring and the Texas Substance Use Symposium, the institute seeks to expand access to services and support for Texans and beyond. The institute includes research, medical interventions and evidence-based treatments, psychological therapies, social and peer support, lifestyle changes, follow-up care, provider training and education and many community outreach and educational initiatives.

Substance use is a significant public health problem that includes several challenges, from the illicit use of substances that have been available for centuries (e.g., opioids) to drugs that appeared more recently (e.g., synthetic cannabinoids). Substance use disorders and other mental health disorders worsened significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Substance use among many mentally ill patients also increased during the pandemic as many sought to self-medicate.

Although opioids are most prominent in news headlines, in some regions of the United States, including South Texas, the most problematic drugs of abuse are not opioids, but stimulants like methamphetamine or alcohol, which is a depressant. Alcohol use is a major contributor to mortality and morbidity, including cancer. The rate of alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. doubled from 1999 to 2017. There are currently no FDA-approved medications for treating cases of substance use disorder outside of opioids and alcohol. Thus, the exploding use of stimulants and synthetic cannabinoids represent a vast unmet medical need.

“This institute will lead transformational change in addressing substance use and substance use disorders throughout Texas and the nation,” said William L. Henrich, MD, MACP, president, UT Health Science Center San Antonio. “We support the discovery, development and implementation of new treatments or more effective use of current treatments and this important effort will facilitate the recruitment of outstanding scientists and clinicians to UT Health San Antonio and accelerate collaboration among scientists, educators and clinicians to discover, validate and implement new treatments. This effort will also serve as a vehicle for partnerships among stakeholders in the community to include scientists, providers and policymakers.”

The worsening overdose epidemic exemplifies the desperate need to improve prevention and treatment of substance use disorder through research and programmatic efforts. An unprecedented 107,000 Americans died in 2022 from drug overdose, the highest rate ever recorded. Often lost in the national discussion on this medical crisis is the fact that this dramatic increase in opioid use and overdose occurred despite the availability of FDA-approved medications that are effective in many patients. These include: methadone, buprenorphine, naltrexone for opioid use disorder and naloxone for opioid overdose. Discovering and advancing new and innovative approaches for treating opioid overdose and opioid use disorder is a critically important endeavor.

Investigators at UT Health San Antonio are conducting state-of-the-art research exploring novel approaches for understanding substance use disorder that will uncover new targets and new methods for treatment. Similarly, university faculty are at the forefront of addressing substance use disorder statewide, including establishing statewide treatment networks, workforce development initiatives and distribution of life-saving naloxone to traditional and non-traditional first responders. Collectively, what is available at UT Health San Antonio is unique in Texas and can be expanded nationally.

About Jennifer Sharpe Potter:

As a nationally recognized public health scientist and practitioner, Jennifer Sharpe Potter, PhD, MPH, leads the state in groundbreaking research and treatment endeavors aimed at mitigating addiction, substance use disorders and related disorders. Her expertise spans the development, dissemination and implementation of evidence-based practices to support individuals grappling with substance use disorders.

In her role as vice president for research, she provides strategic oversight to UT Health San Antonio’s research endeavors, ensuring the university’s continued pursuit of excellence in scientific inquiry and innovation. Her leadership also extends to pivotal roles as principal investigator of the Institute for Integration of Medicine and Science, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Clinical Trials Network. This underscores her commitment to advancing the frontiers of substance use research.

Prior to joining the university, she was with Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. She earned her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Georgia and her Master of Public Health from the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University.

The launch of the Be Well Institute heralds a new era of collaboration and innovation in the field of substance use research and care and stakeholders from across the academic, health care and public sectors are encouraged to join us in this vital endeavor as we strive to improve the lives of individuals and communities affected by substance use disorders.

With sincere respect and appreciation,

William L. Henrich, MD, MACP                                         Robert Hromas, MD, FACP
President                                                                              Dean, Long School of Medicine
UT Health San Antonio                                                      Vice President for Medical Affairs

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