Building the Anti-Addiction Arsenal

A profile on Anna Lee, a UMN researcher studying co-use of alcohol and other substances, and how treatment medications can help.

Lauren Holly (writer), Megan Smith (illustrator)

Building the anti-addiction arsenal

University of Minnesota researcher targets nicotine and alcohol addiction in the battle against a global killer

Nearly everyone has an addiction story whether it’s a personal experience, or through a family member or friend. While the opioid epidemic draws much media attention, tobacco and alcohol addiction remain a global health threat. In fact, nearly half a million Americans die each year from smoking-related deaths, while the CDC reports excessive alcohol as a cause of death for 1 in 10 working-age adults.

Treating those addicted to nicotine, alcohol, and other chemicals is no easy task. Most patients benefit from behavior modification, and medication-assisted therapies, along with a system of support. There’s no one-size-fits-all treatment and no uniform response to drugs that are currently on the market. Of the few drugs approved by the FDA, only one can point to success rates of 30-45 percent, leaving over half of those seeking treatment without viable medical therapy.

We need an “an arsenal of treatment drugs available for use by patients and clinicians,” explains Anna Lee, Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmacology, who studies the neurobiology of addiction. Lee’s research focuses on the chemical and molecular basis of behavior related to drug addiction. With a better understanding of the mechanisms that trigger chemical dependence, Lee strives to identify new medications to help patients break the cycle of addiction.

Lee’s primary research addresses why some drugs are so commonly co-abused. Part of the reason may be that both types of addiction share similar underlying systems. Using a mouse model, Lee studies the impact of pharmaceutical agents on brain receptors linked to nicotine and alcohol consumption. “If the animals are freely consuming alcohol and nicotine at the same time, how does a specific drug medication or intervention affect one or both?” posits Lee.

Lee, a member of the University’s Medical Discovery Team on Addiction, believes her research approach will shed light on the complex systems of genes, proteins, and circuitry involved in addiction and inform the development of future therapies.

She’s betting that new tools placed in the hands of clinicians will increase the odds of success for patients and practitioners in the battle against nicotine and alcohol addiction.

 

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