UT-Austin, others, secure $29 Million for genomics-based alcohol addiction research

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Photo Credit: Victoria Smith | Daily Texan Staff

Under the leadership of neuroscientist Adron Harris, UT and other universities are investigating new ways to treat alcoholism. 

The National Institutes of Health granted $29 million to 12 universities this month for the purpose of studying alcoholism. Harris, UT professor and director of the Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research, said UT will receive $8.5 million of the grant.

“The advantage of our program is that we bring many different approaches that will allow us to better understand and treat alcoholism,” Harris said. “This challenge is that this requires the coordination of 12 different projects across the U.S. and Canada.”

Laura Ferguson, a postdoctoral researcher in the Harris lab, said that at UT alone, the grant will fund labs to look at the molecular, electrophysical and behavioral sides of addiction. Specifically, the Harris lab is looking at the levels and regulation of gene expression in alcoholics.

A variety of factors cause alcoholism, including environment and gene interactions, Ferguson said. She added that some people may be more genetically disposed to alcoholism than others but may never develop alcoholism because their environment has a low exposure to alcohol. 

According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, drinking alcohol alters the balance of chemicals in the brain, and for heavy drinking, the brain tries to maintain equilibrium through compensation. Through this compensation, different genes will be activated and inactivated and that may be one factor in alcohol dependence. 

Ferguson and Harris are seeking to cancel out this bad gene expression and replace it with normal gene expression using FDA-approved drugs. In order to measure changes in gene expression, Ferguson said the Harris lab uses a database which shows the effects of different drugs on human cells. The database is from the Broad Institute, which is a collaboration between Harvard and MIT. 

The FDA-approved drugs in the database are mostly for treating cancer, but Ferguson said the Harris lab and others are finding ways to repurpose them. In cancer, for instance, tumor cells undergo massive changes in gene expression, while the brain has small-scale, regulated expression. 

“We have some good validation in mouse models (that this) treatment is effective for psychiatric diseases,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson said thousands of genes are not expressed properly in the brain of an alcoholic, but that some drugs can change hundreds of genes at once. She added that it is more important to target pathways of many compatible genes than individuals genes.

“The biggest differences between alcoholics and nonalcoholics is the difference in gene connectivity and how their gene patterns are regulated,” Ferguson said.

Because these drugs are repurposed, the funding can be spent looking at ways to optimize gene expression and later fund human clinical laboratory studies, rather than discovering new drugs, Ferguson said.

Soon, a drug may be found that reduces the cravings of alcoholism, but we must remember that the environment plays a critical role in the life of alcoholics, Ferguson said. 

“You need the human component — psychosocial therapy,” Ferguson said.  “(The drug) could aid addiction for alcoholics.”