School of Medicine

Study seeks former opioid users who avoided addiction

Researchers want to understand how genetics affects opioid addiction

From the WashU School of Medicine News

Individuals with a history of opioid misuse — but no history of opioid addiction — may help scientists identify genes that protect against opioid-use disorders. To that end, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis are launching a large-scale study for which they plan to recruit 2,000 people who have used opioids recreationally 60 times or fewer and not become dependent on the drugs.

“A person’s genetic makeup plays a major role in whether that person becomes addicted to opioids,” said the study’s senior investigator, Elliot Nelson, MD, a professor of psychiatry. “Opioids are dangerous, habit-forming drugs when used recreationally; however, some individuals are able to use them infrequently without becoming addicted. We believe these individuals are uniquely valuable for identifying protective genetic factors that may provide us with insights for helping people who become addicted to opioids or are at high risk.”

Recent research found that nearly 12 million Americans misused opioids within the year that they were surveyed, and most of these misusers were not addicted. Nelson’s group has received a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to learn about such users.

The opioid epidemic is a public health crisis in the U.S. On average, more than 134 people in the United States die each day from opioid overdoses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Opioid misuse and addiction — involving prescription pain relievers, heroin or synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl — are estimated to cost the U.S. economy more than $78 billion a year, including health care, lost productivity, addiction treatment and criminal justice expenses.

The current project grew out of a genetic study Nelson and his colleagues had conducted in Australia, in which they compared a large sample of opioid-dependent individuals to a smaller sample of recreational opioid users who were not addicted. The researchers observed a significant association implicating a gene that may have protective effects.

In this new study, they are recruiting recreational opioid misusers who are not dependent on such drugs, with the idea that by studying a larger sample, the researchers will be able to learn more about such individuals and identify additional novel genes that may be involved in protecting people from, or predisposing them to, addiction.

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