Pharmacy Researchers Part of $3.3M Grant Award

By Belinda Lehmkuhle
May 29, 2012
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Researchers within the College of Pharmacy are among a team of university researchers working to develop medication to treat alcoholism and drug addiction that could target individual genes or brain signaling systems.

The multi-disciplinary team has received a $3.3 million, five-year grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for the project.

“The goal is to take some very new directions for developing medications for alcohol dependence and drug addiction,” said R. Adron Harris, the project’s principal investigator and a professor of pharmacology and toxicology within the College of Pharmacy.

“Addiction is one of the most prevalent health problems in the country, and there are very few medications for treating it,” said Harris who also serves as director of the university’s Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research and serves on the faculty of the College of Natural Sciences.

The medication could be a pill, Harris said, although it’s too early in the research to be definite about what form it might take.

He said the eight researchers involved have extensive backgrounds in alcohol research and bring complementary research skills and expertise in instrumentation techniques to the project. All are affiliated with the Waggoner Center and several are on the faculties of the Colleges of Pharmacy and Natural Sciences.  Participating from the College of Pharmacy are Drs. Rueben Gonzales and Rick Morrisett, both professors of pharmacology and toxicology.  Other members of the team from pharmacy include Igor Ponomarev, research assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology.

“It brings together molecular approaches, genetic approaches, behavioral and electrophysiology,” Harris said. “It’s all directed at the same question but all being done in different labs by different people.”

The researchers want to identify targets where alcohol and drugs affect the brain and then identify medications that would block alcohol and drugs from hitting those targets.

There are two tracks to the research. One will examine genes that have been identified with alcohol dependence and addiction, and the other involves peptides that affect brain-signaling systems.

“Our approach is to change gene function with an approach that is different from gene therapy,” Harris said of the first track. “We’re not changing the gene. We’re changing which genes are turned on and turned off using ‘master regulators’ called microRNA.”

In the second track, researchers will investigate peptides, which are involved in signaling systems in the brain.

“The peptides act on the signaling systems in the brain to counteract or correct the effects of alcohol abuse,” Harris said.

Researcher John Mihic has developed a way to screen millions of peptides to find the few that would be effective.

Harris said the most promising drugs to emerge from the research would go to collaborators at other institutions for clinical testing.

“At present, we don’t have a medical school at UT Austin, so we are limited in what we can do here,” he said. “But we have collaborators at other sites that will be interested in testing medications.”

Last month, the University of Texas Board of Regents committed up to $30 million a year to establish a medical school at The University of Texas at Austin.

The researchers are working under a project program grant from the NIH.

“This is a mechanism that simultaneously funds multiple projects,” Harris said. “It will enable us to work together better and to do more things than we could on our own.”

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