With $12.5M grant, Brown to create research center on substance misuse and chronic disease

With a new five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health, the Center for Addiction and Disease Risk Exacerbation will launch four research projects and establish a clinical laboratory for biological addiction research at Brown University.

PROVIDENCE, R.I.[Brown University] — With a new National Institutes of Health grant expected to total $12.5 million over five years, Brown University will expand its research on substance misuse and launch a new Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE).

Based at the University’s School of Public Health, the Center for Addiction and Disease Risk Exacerbation (CADRE) will focus on the intersection of substance use and disease. The center will establish at Brown a laboratory for collecting blood and other samples from patients to measure chemical markers, such as those of inflammation or stress. And the grant will support four early-career faculty members as they study substance use and chronic diseases — research questions on the interplay between alcohol and HIV on inflammation, for example, or whether cannabis can substitute for opioids in treating rheumatoid arthritis.

“Everyone knows about the relationship between tobacco use and lung cancer, but there are many other links between substance use and chronic diseases,” said Peter Monti, director of the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies (CAAS) at Brown and a professor of behavioral and social sciences who will lead the new COBRE. “Understanding the mechanisms through which substance use affects chronic disease is a central part of the research we endeavor to do with this grant. If we can reduce the burden of substance use — for example, smoking and its impact on cardiovascular disease — there will be a trickle-down effect on health and health care cost savings.”

COBRE is a National Institute for General Medical Sciences program that focuses on developing institutional research infrastructure and helping promising early-career investigators establish research projects so they can successfully compete for additional federal funding. Groups of researchers at eligible institutions can apply for up to three five-year phases of COBRE support.

Bess Marcus, dean of the School of Public Health at Brown, said the CADRE grant will enable Monti and his team to build upon existing research excellence in psychological and social addiction research within CAAS and create infrastructure to support the study of the biological aspects of addiction.

“The CADRE grant will increase the center’s capacity to conduct cutting-edge research and test innovative substance abuse interventions to improve population health,” Marcus said. “This grant will be integral to the School of Public Health’s initiatives over the next five years that seek to impact the urgent health challenges of addiction.”

The grant will establish a clinical laboratory at CAAS and the school. The lab will be staffed by a full-time research nurse so that, for example, study participants will no longer have to go elsewhere for a simple blood draw. Jennifer Tidey, a professor of behavioral and social sciences and psychiatry and human behavior, will lead the laboratory. Eventually, the services at the lab will be available to researchers across all of Brown, Monti said.

In addition, the grant will fund two $50,000 pilot projects each year focused on understanding and addressing the higher burden of substance use and chronic disease among racial and ethnic minorities. It will also provide financial support for the center to recruit and fund two postdoctoral fellows from groups underrepresented in biomedical sciences.

The center will take advantage of numerous other COBREs at Brown and its affiliated hospitals — including Brown’s Center for Central Nervous System Function, Butler Hospital’s Center for Neuromodulation, Rhode Island Hospital’s Center of Biomedical Research Excellence on Opioids and Overdose, and Advance Clinical and Translational Research. And one of the projects led by an early-career researcher will take advantage of a close collaboration with the Carney Institute for Brain Science-affiliated MRI Research Facility

Monti noted that CADRE will directly fund and support projects led by early-career faculty who are mentored by established faculty members such as CADRE Deputy Director Dr. Jasjit Ahluwalia, a professor of behavioral and social sciences and medicine, and Tidey. 

“Substance misuse is a huge problem in our culture,” Monti said. “It’s important that we come up with innovative and testable ideas. The best source of innovation is from passionate early-career individuals who have the opportunity to work with seasoned mentors while bringing their own ideas to the table. That melding of mentoring with innovative, fresh ideas is our best chance to ultimately ensure that we get a handle on this problem.”

Among the new research projects: 

  • Elizabeth Aston, an assistant professor of behavioral and social sciences (research), will conduct a double-blind clinical trial to study the effect of two key components of cannabis — cannabidiol, also known as CBD, and tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC — on pain levels, mood and inflammation among people living with rheumatoid arthritis. The study could guide clinical decisions around the use of cannabis instead opioids for the management of rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. Her mentors will be Jane Metrik, an associate professor of behavioral and social sciences (research) and psychiatry and human behavior (research) and Dr. Nancy Shadick, a rheumatoid arthritis expert at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
  • Carolina Haass-Koffler, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior and behavioral and social sciences, will work to see if oxytocin —a hormone with many roles in social interactions, including pair bonding — can be used in combination with traditional medication-assisted treatment to reduce the intensity of stress-induced cravings among people recovering from opioid use disorder. Her  primary mentor will be Dr. Robert Swift, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior. 
  • Mollie Monnig, an assistant professor of behavioral and social sciences, will study the interplay between alcohol use and HIV on inflammation in the brain and human body. Both HIV infection and heavy drinking are known to cause inflammation, but how drinking increases the severity of brain inflammation and potentially hinders the immune system in people living with HIV is unknown. Monnig will study the effects of drinking on inflammation in HIV-positive and HIV-negative individuals using blood assays, MRI scans and cognitive tasks. Her mentors will be Monti, and Ron Cohen, a neuropsychologist at the University of Florida. 

The focus and principal researcher for a fourth major project to be funded by the grant will be confirmed as the center launches.

The COBRE is supported by an Institutional Development Award from the National Institute Of General Medical Sciences (grant number P20 GM130414).