Finding roots to drug crisis

A task force of medical and behavioral professionals will study how a person’s chemistry could make him or her more prone to addiction.

The Editorial Board
Thu, 10 Oct 2019 04:00:00 GMT

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Ohio could be at the forefront of research on opioid abuse with a newly announced study to determine which genetic markers make people susceptible to opioid addiction. It could produce monumental results to help curb future addiction problems.

The two-pronged, $1.6 million study, funded from litigation settlements from Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost’s office, is to start in January and use results from 1,500 emergency room patients at the University of Cincinnati and Ohio State University medical centers.

The plan is to seek permission from the patients, who will not be identified in the study, to take cheek swabs, and then test those for 180 genetic markers to examine whether there is a link between some markers and substance abuse disorder. Patients will be asked about their health history and other related factors.

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Three batches of patients who come to the hospitals will be included: those who arrive with substance abuse disorder, those who have used opioids but are not addicted, and those who haven’t used opioids.

The swabs will be collected for about 12 months and sent for analysis to Genemarkers, a Michigan genomic research firm. The analysis will take about six months.

“We want to know why two people can take the same drug in the same dosage and only one becomes addicted,” Mr. Yost said.

One purpose of the clinical study is to develop an addiction risk score, which will better identify a patient’s likelihood for future opioid use disorder.

Also part of the state’s project, a task force of medical and behavioral professionals will study all related medical studies and literature about how a person’s chemistry could make him or her more prone to becoming addicted. The task force, called the Scientific Committee on Opioid Prevention and Education, will develop addiction prevention techniques and strategies.

Ohio is among the hardest hit states nationally from opioid abuse. It had 3,700 overdose deaths last year and the nation had 70,000 in 2017. Every day in the country, one study leader said, 4,400 people started misusing opioids. The numbers are staggering, Mr. Yost said. “We need to do something more.”

The study will be overseen by Dr. Jon Sprague, director of science and research for the Attorney General’s Office and eminent scholar for the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation at Bowling Green State University, and by Dr. Caroline Freiermuth, associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

Dr. Sprague said the study will focus on the reward pathways to the brain from opioids. The hope is to narrow down the genetic markers that point to the problem that may help doctors craft better ways to manage pain so the patient doesn’t become an addict, he said.

Dr. Freiermuth said stopping opioid prescriptions altogether is not the right answer, as they do work for some patients without side effects.

But she said there aren’t good screening tools for doctors to know who might be susceptible to addiction, except for people who use the drugs long-term. If the study can establish such tools, she explained, then patients and doctors can use that knowledge to determine the best treatment methods for someone who is injured or will have surgery.

This is believed to be the largest U.S. study of its kind — in terms of the number of patients and number of genetic markers tested. If it produces groundbreaking results, it would put Ohio at the forefront of halting one of the nation’s worst health epidemics.