The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston plans to establish the Translational Addiction Sciences Center, with the goal of discovering and validating novel treatment options to fight addiction, thanks to a five-year, $6.6. million dollar grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The Translational Addiction Sciences Center is a dynamic, new project that brings together a team of addiction experts from a range of professional research and clinical disciplines to achieve the goal of advancing research and care for those who struggle with addiction. Led by principal investigator Dr. Kathryn Cunningham, who serves as professor of pharmacology and toxicology at UTMB, the team also includes Dr. Scott Gilbertson, a professor of chemistry at the University of Houston whose research involves designing and synthesizing new chemical compounds, Dr. Cheryl Watson, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology from UTMB who guides signaling analyses in cellular models and Dr. F. Gerard Moeller, a professor of psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, who leads research analyses in human subjects.
Specifically, the team is currently seeking to pioneer studies in an effort to establish receptor proteins that respond to the neurotransmitter serotonin, which act as critically important regulators that involve the mechanisms underlying addiction. As Gilbertson recently explained in a press release, targeting the serotonin system is a novel approach for treatment of drug addiction and relapse. “Scientists have examined other aspects of the central nervous system, like the dopamine neurotransmitter system, for a long time with little success,” he said.
Dr. Cunningham, who also leads UTMB’s Center for Addiction Research, Noted that one of the team’s main goals in translating these studies into real-life use is to apply it toward treating cocaine addiction, where researchers will conduct experiments to identify targets the serotin system of the brain that are directly involved in behaviors related to cocaine relapses among addicts, all as a means of designing new therapeutic molecules that could potentially selectively affect these targets, and then validating these new molecules to see if they could be viable as potential medications in order to support abstinence from cocaine use.
Cunningham notes that, “our scientific advances are now bringing to light the importance of serotonin in cocaine addiction and implicate serotonin imbalance as a mechanism underlying certain behavioral traits that enhance susceptibility to relapse,” since individuals who tend to act on impulse and show elevated responses to cues associated with cocaine use have a higher incidence of relapse.
“These factors are interconnected and appear to be related to an underlying imbalance in serotonin receptor function, providing an opportunity to individualize treatment strategies,” said Moeller. “We believe that addicted patients who exhibit these particular traits will respond better to medications that selectively target certain serotonin receptors.”
According to the investigators, the serotonin receptor is a complex system, that consists of at least 14 different receptor proteins, and current medications that act on this system do not distinguish the receptor subtypes very well. Thus, there is a need to develop new compounds that selectively target the desired receptors. “When new compounds are synthesized by Dr. Gilbertson’s group, the effects of these compounds are first measured at the cellular level because it is much more efficient, less costly, and reduces the number of animal and human evaluations necessary,” said Watson,adding that these technologies will give the team new insights into previously unappreciated signaling mechanisms that could reveal new therapies.
Watson notes that the team can “easily sprinkle” these chemicals on cells and observe the receptors to which they bind and the signals they generate: ” the value of testing these new compounds at the cellular level is that we can narrow down what would be safe and effective to try in animals and humans,” she said.
Gilbertson added that it is an iterative process that requires input at the cellular, animal and human levels. “The more we understand how the systems function and adapt during addiction and in response to the medications, the better can we pinpoint where we need to target the new molecules,” he said.
Cunningham believes their research will be successful in jumpstarting a new generation of discovery for treatments to help prevent relapse in individuals suffering from cocaine addiction.