Published June 20, 2013
Pharmacology and toxicology researchers have been honored for their contributions to the 2013 Behavior, Biology and Chemistry conference in San Antonio March 9-10.
Doctoral candidate David Thorn won the sole Best Oral Presentation Award for PhD students and postdoctoral fellows.
Thorn and postdoctoral fellow Amy M. Gancarz, PhD, won travel awards to present at the conference.
This annual forum, sponsored by the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, brings together chemists, biologists and behavioral scientists. The goal is to foster innovative approaches to developing medications to treat addictions.
“What is particularly rewarding about the conference is that, although many of the approaches differ, the research has a common goal in understanding drug addiction,” Thorn says.
This year, the focus was on translational research in addiction.
Thorn’s award-winning in vivo study sheds light on a novel drug target with potential to treat chronic pain and opioid dependence.
Researching in the lab of assistant professor Jun-Xu Li, MD, PhD, Thorn is investigating drugs acting on the widely expressed imidazoline I2 receptor, a protein binding site involved in pain modulation and neuroprotection.
His study assessed the effect of the selective I2 receptor agonist 2-BFI on the unwanted side effects of opioids, particularly the development of tolerance and dependence.
Previous studies in Li’s lab have shown that this receptor agonist enhances the effectiveness of the analgesic effects of morphine in rats, suggesting a possible, safer combination therapy with opioids.
“We found that this receptor agonist markedly diminished the development of tolerance and physical dependence to morphine,” says Thorn.
The study also further supports the therapeutic potential of combining I2 receptor agonists and opioids for pain treatment, he notes.
Gancarz presented a poster on her study exploring addiction-related changes in the brain’s synaptic connectivity.
“Persistent, even lifelong, craving in a recovering addict suggests there are changes in the brain that persist long after the last encounter with a drug,” Gancarz explains.
“Understanding the molecular foundations of such long-lasting adaptations is of critical importance to efforts to discover an effective treatment.”
Her in vivo study of cocaine withdrawal explores how Activin receptor signaling in the brain may mediate addiction.
“Our findings demonstrate that these receptors and signaling pathways are critical players in the re-organization of the ‘addicted brain,’ ” she notes.
“In animals that have taken cocaine, we have discovered an increase of this receptor and associated signaling pathways,” she says.
These changes occur in the nucleus accumbens, a key brain region associated with reward and motivation.
Gancarz researches in the lab of assistant professor David M. Dietz, PhD.
Li’s oral presentation illuminated recent findings about the relationship of chronic pain and impulsivity.
His in vivo, delayed-discounting study explored the effect of pain on decision-making capability.
Li trained rats to choose between a smaller, immediate reward or a larger reward after waiting for different periods of time.
He then exposed the rats to a version of chronic neuropathic pain to see whether pain could influence their choice behavior.
“Quite surprisingly, no apparent changes were found on their choice behaviors,” Li notes. “Our results suggest that neuropathic pain may not impact the decision-making process.”