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Pharmacy student receives national award for community service and opioid research

Pharmacy, Academic & Artistic Excellence, Schaumburg, Current Students
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Alex Heinz

A Roosevelt University pharmacy student from Streamwood, Illinois, has received a 2017 U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) Excellence in Public Pharmacy Award.

Alex Heinz, 24, who is now in his final year as a doctoral student in Roosevelt’s three-year College of Pharmacy program, was selected for the competitive national award based on his patient-care activism in the Northwest suburbs and his striking research on the opioid painkiller, oxycodone.

It is the first time ever that a Roosevelt pharmacy student has received the prestigious award that was established by a U.S. assistant surgeon general and pharmacists in the USPHS as a way to encourage pharmacy students to be active in the public health arena.

“The USPHS Excellence in Public Health Pharmacy Award is highly competitive and this is a very significant honor for our student and our program,” said Melissa Hogan, dean of Roosevelt’s College of Pharmacy.

A Roosevelt pharmacy professor initially urged Heinz to apply for the award in part because of a research paper that he did with two College of Pharmacy students for an elective public health course last summer on the safety and effectiveness of opioids that contain ingredients intended to deter abuse.

“I saw a news article that suggested more people are abusing opioids than are abusing heroin, and it got me thinking that I needed to do something to understand how we can best prevent prescription drug abuse,” said Heinz.

The third-year pharmacy student and fellow students Gerry Cavanagh of Savanna, Illinois, and Julia Gilbert, a native of Minnesota who currently lives in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, initially reviewed information on more than 20 brands of the opioid known as oxycodone before zeroing in on three types that manufacturers claim can deter abuse.

The students looked closely at: oxycodone containing naloxone or naltrexone, which counteract the opioid when it is injected; formulation-technology oxycodone, which automatically gels up, rendering the drug unusable, when it is crushed or dissolved; and oxycodone containing niacin, an ingredient that causes unpleasant side effects when ingested.

In a paper titled “The efficacy and safety of various abuse deterrent formulations on the prevention of inappropriate use of oxycodone: A systematic review,” the Roosevelt students concluded that all three formulations were effective in deterring abuse. Of the three, formulation-technology oxycodone, such as DETERx, was determined to be the safest, most efficient and versatile.

“I asked my students to research something in public health that they felt strongly about, and what they came back with was above and beyond typical student research,” said Abby Kahaleh, associate professor of pharmacy administration.

In fact, the research spawned a poster presentation to more than 20,000 pharmacists from around the world at a meeting of the American Society of Health System Pharmacists in Las Vegas in December 2016. The students’ paper also is under consideration for publication by the Illinois Council of Health Systems Pharmacists.

In addition to his research, Heinz has engaged with Northwest suburban residents on a number of public-health issues. Among activities, the Roosevelt student has talked with children at a Schaumburg day care center about the importance of healthy eating and exercise. He has administered vaccinations as a volunteer with Walgreens in Des Plaines. He has contributed to community food drives in Schaumburg, and has done fundraising for both children’s hospitals and performed cholesterol screenings at an American Diabetes Association exposition.

“Alex not only excels as a researcher, but also has proven to be a strong public health advocate and community leader,” said Lawrence Potempa, the associate professor of biochemistry and immunology who encouraged Heinz to apply for the national award.

Beginning a rotation in August at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Illinois, Heinz hopes to land a competitive post-doctorate residency in public health pharmacy after he graduates from Roosevelt in May 2018.  “I am grateful for this award, which I hope will boost my chances for obtaining a residency,” he said.

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