Research to Develop Cocaine Addiction Therapy Wins NIH Grant

A drug-like molecule developed to treat cocaine addiction has proven so promising that two University of Miami Miller School researchers have been awarded a NIH grant to continue their research in developing it further.

Claes Wahlestedt, M.D., Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and associate dean for therapeutic innovation, and Shaun Brothers, Ph.D., research assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the new Center for Therapeutic Innovation (CTI) at the Miller School, received a National Institutes of Health grant of $1.7 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to improve a drug-like molecule they began developing in 2009 with federal stimulus funding.

Their proposal “Small Molecule Identification for the Nociceptin Receptor to Treat Cocaine Addiction” will work toward making the molecule even more drug-like in support of developing a new therapeutic for cocaine abuse.

“Cocaine abuse is a major worldwide health burden,” said Wahlestedt, “for which there are no effective therapies available.” There are nearly five million annual cocaine users in the United States alone.

Studies suggest that activating the nociceptin receptor combats the dependence effects of substances that are abused, such as nicotine, alcohol and cocaine. Previously, Wahlestedt and Brothers, who moved their laboratory from the Scripps Research Institute in Florida to the Miller School in 2011, identified and synthesized novel and potent selective nociceptin receptor agonists as research tools on substance dependence. Their close collaborator on this project, Thomas Bannister, Ph.D., associate scientific director at Scripps, was awarded a companion NIDA grant to perform complementary studies related to this award.

The nociceptin receptor, which is found throughout the brain, could be a useful target for developing novel therapies to treat cocaine addiction, according to Wahlestedt. This grant will enable the researchers to design and evaluate agents that can be used in cocaine addiction research, aimed specifically at the nociceptin receptor.

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