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Developing Prevention & Treatment Solutions for Alcohol & Substance Use Disorders

Experienced investigators from Dell Medical School, the College of Natural Sciences, College of Liberal Arts, Cockrell School of Engineering, Steve Hicks School of Social Work and College of Pharmacy explore alcohol and drug actions at the molecular, electrophysiological and behavioral levels. Collaborations with engineers and scientists who are not currently alcohol researchers allow the development of new tools and research approaches not possible in any one laboratory. Clinical researchers explore the relationship of substance use disorders to co-morbid conditions like depression and bipolar disorder.

Areas of Focus

New gene sequencing technology (NexGen RNA-Seq) allows the measurement of changes in the activity or expression of thousands of genes. Waggoner Center labs are using this rapidly evolving technology to determine gene expression changes in humans with alcohol use disorder and in animal models of addiction. This information is used in conjunction with online databases to identify approved drugs that could be repurposed for treating substance use disorders. This work has identified neuroinflammatory pathways as being especially important in alcohol dependence. This finding has led to testing of approved anti-inflammatory agents, such as phosphodiesterase inhibitors, as potential treatments.

To prevent or reverse the process of addiction, investigators research the molecular targets responsible for drug actions on brain cells. Center researchers examine potential targets in test tube assays as well as in experimental animals with genetic changes in key molecules. This data will be useful in designing novel therapeutic approaches to addiction.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved disulfiram, naltrexone and acamprosate for the treatment of alcohol dependence, but none of these medications has shown strong, consistent effects in clinical trials.

For opioid use disorder, the FDA has approved methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone, which all have significant drawbacks. Methadone must be administered in special licensed facilities and carefully tapered to avoid severe opioid withdrawal. Since buprenorphine is a partial agonist and naltrexone is an antagonist, they can induce withdrawal symptoms.

For smoking cessation, the FDA has approved nicotine replacement, bupropion and varenicline. Varenicline is the most effective of these, but its use is limited by side effects such as insomnia, irritability and gastrointestinal symptoms.

No medications have yet been approved for psychostimulant or cannabis use disorders.

Therefore, there is a need to develop new medications. Given this need for more effective treatments, the center uses emerging research in addiction neurobiology to identify new candidates for medication development.

Progress in addiction research requires education and focused training of future scientists in state-of-the art approaches to the problem. Members are committed to this endeavor, developing new courses in the neurobiology of substance use disorders for undergraduate and graduate students. Additionally, the university has designated substantial endowment funds to train graduate students in this research field. In the long run, this may have the greatest impact of all of the center’s programs.