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NIDA Awards U of Chicago $12M to Create Center for Genetics-based Drug Abuse Research

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – The University of Chicago said on Thursday it has been awarded a five-year, $12 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to create a center of excellence using rats to study the genetics of drug abuse.

The NIDA Center for Genome-Wide Association Studies in Outbred Rats will conduct research that combines recent advances in rat genetics with behavioral studies. The center will be led by Abraham Palmer, an associate professor of human genetics at the University of Chicago, who will collaborate with researchers from the University of Michigan, University of Buffalo, University of Tennessee Health Science Center, and the Medical College of Wisconsin.

They plan to use genome-wide association studies to research particular traits. The research groups will explore separate behaviors and send samples to the University of Chicago for genetic analysis, facilitating the study of the genetic underpinnings of multiple aspects of drug abuse more efficiently and rapidly, the university said.

It noted that when fully operational, the center will enable research into the genetic bases of other medical conditions and will serve as a resource to train students interested in drug-abuse research. It will provide seed funding for select research projects, and with funding from the NIH Big Data to Knowledge program, it plans to create a "big data" museum exhibit about biomedical science.

The center's first four projects include one exploring the genetic basis for differences in reward-seeking behavior, to be led by Terry Robinson at the University of Michigan. Also, Hao Chen at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center will study genetic influences on nicotine self-administration in rats.

Jerry Richards at the University of Buffalo is leading a project that will explore the connection between addiction and certain behaviors, such as response to novelty, sustained attention, and reaction time. Lastly, Palmer will conduct the GWAS project and use DNA samples from the other three projects to produce data using next-generation sequencing.

"This center is the culmination of several years of work in applying GWAS studies in animals toward drug abuse behavior," Palmer said in a statement. "We are investigating fundamental processes to all stages in the hope that identifying the genes and molecular events involved in addiction gives us the opportunity to intervene through novel therapeutics."

The university also noted the importance of the use of rats in drug-abuse research. Mice have often displaced rats in biomedical research, especially those looking at behavioral issues, because of innovations in mouse genome manipulation. "This shift has affected certain research fields, particularly the study of drug abuse and addiction, where behavioral tasks are often too complex for mice to perform," the university said.

The result is a slowdown in studies into the genetics behind drug abuse. The center will support a comprehensive breeding program, providing a population of genetically diversified rats.