Richard Spoth, director of Iowa State’s Partnerships in Prevention Science Institute, received a 2017 national translation science award from the Society for Prevention Research. Spoth and his colleagues are using prevention research today to avert the health and wellness crises of tomorrow. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Award-winning Iowa State research, outreach poised to combat opioid misuse, other health challenges

Youth show lower rates of substance misuse, including prescription opioid misuse, well after high school graduation if they have participated in proven prevention programs that follow the PROSPER (PROmoting School-community-university Partnerships to Enhance Resilience) model developed at Iowa State University.

That’s according to researchers at Iowa State’s Partnerships in Prevention Science Institute, newly housed under the Department of Human Development and Family Studies within the College of Human Sciences. PPSI is part of a larger effort to better translate Iowa State’s social and prevention science into widespread community practices.

“The mission of PPSI, its prevention programs, and research has never been more important given the looming threat of the opioid crisis in the U.S.,” said Carl Weems, professor and chair of human development and family studies.

Stemming substance misuse

The PROSPER model study, published this month in the journal Psychological Medicine, involved more than 1,900 19-year-olds who seven years earlier took part in programs provided by the PROSPER community-based delivery system. The researchers found reductions of youth substance misuse up to 41 percent relative to a control group, including relative reduction of prescription opioid misuse.

“The findings have significant implications for the future of our nation’s public health,” said Richard Spoth, PROSPER’s principal investigator and director of PPSI. “If implemented broadly across communities, the PROSPER delivery system model has the potential to reduce substance misuse over the long term and benefit many.”

PROSPER’s community-based preventive intervention delivery system is offered during a pivotal developmental period to young adolescents between ages 11 to 13. This is when exposure to and an uptake of controlled substances and other risky behavior often begins, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Throughout the delivery of the intervention, community teams of Human Sciences Extension and Outreach staff and school representatives guide the application of family-focused and school-based prevention programs year after year. PPSI scientists work with extension-based prevention coordinators to provide support for the community teams.

“We already knew that programs delivered through the PROSPER model help reduce substance misuse and student conduct problems during middle and high school, but now we see its impact extending beyond high school into early adulthood,” Spoth said. “This is important news, given that the prevalence of illicit drug use is highest among young people between the ages of 19 and 22.”

National impact

PROSPER is a centerpiece PPSI project cited in a 2017 national translation science award received by Spoth from the Society for Prevention Research. PROSPER also was featured this summer in a congressional briefing on community-based primary prevention, for which Spoth was a panelist.

The same general recommendations on primary prevention were also included in a letter to the national President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis from the American Psychological Association. Spoth has provided research-based information and recommendations to the association for many years.

Research that leads to everyday practice

PROSPER’s evidence-based interventions are just one example of the potential impact of advancing “translational” research — the practice of converting scientific findings into customary habits embraced by the general public to improve public health and wellness.

Another Iowa State University translational research project will address contemporary problems such as obesity, substance misuse, depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. The effort is funded by a $750,000 three-year award from the Iowa State University Presidential Interdisciplinary Research Initiative (PIRI). Greg Welk, a Barbara E. Forker Professor in Kinesiology, is the principal investigator, with Spoth and Weems serving as co-principal investigators.

“The key challenge to be addressed through the new PIRI project is to disseminate evidence-based programs so that they can be adopted, implemented, and maintained in community settings to have a sustained health impact,” Welk said.

The proposed network of Iowa State faculty and community stakeholders will be coordinated in partnership with ISU Extension and Outreach’s Engaged Scholarship Funding Program, which assists faculty and staff in procuring funding for projects that translate research into practice. With funding from the new PIRI grant, ESFP will expand to colleges across Iowa State.

“The partnership is synergistic, and provides opportunities for researchers and community members to learn from each other in mutually beneficial ways,” said Deb Sellers, College of Human Sciences associate dean and director of Human Sciences Extension and Outreach. “It reflects a true commitment to the ideal of ‘science with practice.’”

A powerhouse in prevention

Prevention of health challenges is a growing signature research area of Iowa State University’s College of Human Sciences, said College of Human Sciences dean and Dean’s Chair Laura Dunn Jolly.

“Prevention has been, and continues to be, a key component of the investigations occurring within PPSI and our college,” Jolly said. “We focus on prevention research today to avert health and wellness crises tomorrow.”