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Learning from the Past: The Fight against Opioid Addiction

July 2, 2019

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What makes one person able to take painkillers without incident while another becomes addicted, and a third overdoses and dies? New Jersey researchers are exploring these questions, using a first-of-its-kind biobank of brains and blood samples from opioid users.


In a three-year, $4 million study, researchers and clinicians from the Coriell Institute for Medical Research, Cooper University Health Care and Cooper Medical School of Rowan University (CMSRU) plan to:

  • Analyze the brains and blood of persons who’ve died of an opioid overdose.
  • Study chronic pain patients who’ve been prescribed painkillers but aren’t addicted.
  • And study patients receiving medication-assisted treatment for with substance abuse disorder.

The project will employ genomic sequencing in hopes of uncovering new ways to predict and prevent opioid addiction, guide treatment, and reduce overdose death. A person’s genetic makeup can affect addiction-related biology such as drug metabolism rates, the brain’s opioid receptors and its reward pathways.

The importance of studying opioid users using biospecimens

“Like the rest of the nation, New Jersey faces an opioid crisis,“ said Dr. Annette Reboli, dean of CMSRU. “This initiative has the potential to define risk factors for opioid addiction and develop strategies to prevent people from developing opioid use disorder and to thereby save lives. This collaboration is perhaps one of the most important we could undertake for the health of so many at-risk individuals.”

Research on opioid users, however, can be difficult to come by. “People who start injecting drugs don’t typically volunteer to talk to us and say, ‘I’d like to be a part of your study,’ so figuring out how to study a high-risk population has been difficult for researchers,” Wilson Compton, deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told WHYY.

More than 47,000 Americans died from opioid overdose in 2017, up 591% from 1989, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

In February, we blogged about another intriguing opioid study, this one involving a blood test intended to objectively quantify a patient’s pain. “It’s very important to have an objective measure of pain, as pain is a subjective sensation,” psychiatry professor Alexander Niculescu, MD, PhDsaid in a news release. “Until now we have had to rely on patients self-reporting or the clinical impression the doctor has.”

Studying human biospecimens from opioid users – living or dead, addicted or not – is a promising way to improve lives and minimize suffering. As always, it requires giving researchers the tools and samples they need to do their work.

Learn about the iSpecimen Marketplace where you can browse millions of richly annotated, de-identified human tissue and biofluid biospecimens, in addition to hematopoietic and immune cell products. You can join for free and creating a login is easy. Request a quote or custom collection today.

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