Could DNA Help Doctors Predict Opioid Addiction?

New research out of Bentley University aims to explore the genetic links between human DNA and opioid addiction. The new study could help doctors identify patients susceptible to opioid dependence and choose different treatment methods.

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A new partnership between Bentley University and Gravity Diagnostics will allow researchers to begin exploring the genetic links between patients and opioid addiction. The research project aims to help better inform doctors on how likely a patient is to become addicted to opioids before ever prescribing opioid drugs. The new data could also be used to predict how patients addicted to opioids will respond to certain treatments.

The opioid crisis remains one of the most critical issues facing U.S. healthcare, with more than 20 percent of patients who are prescribed opioids for chronic pain falling into opioid abuse, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The latest figures show that more than 115 people die every day from opioid overdose in the United States, and 80 percent of heroin users began by misusing prescription opioids.

Chris Skipwith, assistant professor of Biotechnology at Bentley and the project’s principal investigator, said that identifying opioid addiction susceptibility could be the first step toward preventative diagnostic solutions that could actually curb opioid abuse.

“There are many data-based approaches to the opioid crisis being employed by government, academia, private research institutions, and non-profit organizations,” Skipwith said. “As we begin to acquire more data about opioid use disorder, we can begin to develop a multifaceted approach to addressing it. Our research specifically has the potential to identify susceptibility to opioid dependence based on genetic makeup or, for dependent individuals, how likely they are to respond positively to opioid and non-opioid therapies. This could have massive implications for the healthcare system because of the cost savings associated with preventative diagnostics.”

The three-year partnership with Gravity Diagnostics will include researchers from Bentley’s natural and applied sciences, sociology, and economics departments, in addition to a public health geneticist. The team of researchers will begin a three-phase study that will use data analytics to identify which genetic features are the best predictors of addiction and response to treatment, and then pair the data with Gravity’s existing diagnostic platform.

From there the group will work with select patient populations to validate the integrative tool and explore psychological, emotional, and other potential predictors of opioid dependence. Finally, Skipwith said the group will analyze the potential economic benefits of the integrative tool for determination of susceptibility to opioid dependence. The study also hopes to better understand other addiction factors, such as why some people become addicted right away, while others take months to form an addiction.

With the opioid crisis quickly moving into epidemic territory, it’s clear to all involved that time is of the essence. Skipwith hopes that this new partnership with Gravity Diagnostics will not only enhance our understanding of opioid addiction, but soon pave the way for a new integrative tool that can begin to improve diagnosis and treatment.

“Our three-year collaboration with Gravity Diagnostics should provide the basic elements needed to develop and validate an integrative tool, and identify the economic implications of using this approach,” Skipwith said. “With Gravity’s leadership in the field, we should have a valuable tool for diagnosis and treatment at the conclusion of this collaboration.”

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