There is no “magic bullet” to cure addiction, be it a pill to extinguish the craving for a particular chemical or a psychological treatment program that works for everybody without relapse, but the quest to find new approaches continues.
It might not be a cure-all, but scientists are still looking to devise a medicine that would make the process of recovery easier, particularly for those addicted to drugs such as cocaine. To this end, the National Institute on Drug Abuse has recently awarded a $6.6-million, five-year grant to the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston to establish the Translational Addiction Sciences Center. Their goals are to understand the biological mechanisms underpinning drug addiction and use this knowledge to devise medicines to help those in need.
Translational Addiction Center: A Multi-Disciplinary Effort
The new center has a lofty goal, and in order to accomplish it, experts have been recruited from multiple disciplines. A chemistry professor has been hired to devise and synthesize new compounds, a biochemist and molecular biologist will test the activity of the compounds in cell models, a psychiatry professor will guide testing in human subjects and a toxicologist/pharmacologist has been recruited to handle the analysis of different models for addiction. The group is effectively designed to understand how addiction works, make a compound that targets the required cells, test those compounds in vitro (in lab-cultured cells) and move on to real-world testing on animals and addicted patients.
Looking for Novel Treatments for Drug Addiction
The team intends to explore new avenues in addiction treatment, and has an initial focus on cocaine addiction. Scott Gilbertson, the chemist recruited to the new center, points out that looking to the serotonin system is a unique approach to treatment, adding that “scientists have examined other aspects of the central nervous system, like the dopamine neurotransmitter system, for a long time with little success.”
Serotonin System and Addiction
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter known to most people for its role in depression. However, new findings are suggesting that an imbalance in serotonin within the brain leads to behaviors that make people suffering from addiction more likely to relapse. Impulse control is a core process in addiction, with those who act impulsively being more responsive to triggers and cues to use drugs like cocaine, and, when they become addicted, being more likely to experience a relapse. The scientists theorize that impulse control is related to serotonin imbalances, and thereby argue that—at least for those lacking in impulse control—medications targeting serotonin could rectify the issue. They’re aiming to specifically target users who act impulsively to see if this is a valid approach to treatment.
Testing Compounds Before Moving to Human Trials
The main roadblock standing in the way of the new team is that the serotonin system is pretty complicated; it’s composed of over 14 different receptor proteins. The aim for the team is to develop a compound that targets impulse control and addiction.
This will require a lot of testing, but the team can conduct in vitro analyses to reduce the amount of costly and time-consuming animal and human studies required. By testing newly synthesized compounds on cultured cells, the team can see how they respond to living cells more easily and affordably, enabling them to zero in on the most promising compounds for further testing.
Is the Future of Addiction Treatment Just Around the Corner?
Of course, the scientists are optimistic after receiving their sizable grant, but is the optimism about the new treatments that could be produced justified? It’s hard to say where the next breakthrough will come from, but given that dopamine-based treatments have been tried many times, shifting the focus and seeing what effect new approaches have will undoubtedly be illuminating. Even if the new center doesn’t hit on the right compound (or even the right region of the brain), every well-documented failure is another piece of information that moves us closer to an effective treatment. If the new medication for cocaine addiction doesn’t come out of the Translational Addiction Sciences Center, the idea for it could easily come from what they learn there.