July 24, 2023
VCU Alcohol Research Center is awarded an NIH grant to fund research training on the ‘most dangerous drug in the world’
Totaling nearly $2 million over five years, the T32 funding will support the training of graduate and postdoctoral researchers in alcohol-related studies.
Share this story
The Virginia Commonwealth University Alcohol Research Center (ARC) received its first training grant, known as a T32, from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Totaling nearly $2 million over five years, the T32 funding will support the training of graduate and postdoctoral researchers in alcohol-related studies.
Initially funded by NIAAA in 2009, VCU ARC is one of 20 NIAAA-funded research centers in the U.S. With $8.9 million from 27 independent grants, VCU is ranked No. 8 in NIAAA funding by the Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research. At VCU ARC, multidisciplinary teams of researchers across the university work with human and preclinical models to better understand the genetics behind alcohol use disorder and contribute to the development of future therapeutics.
“Statistically, alcohol is the most dangerous drug in the world,” said Brien Riley, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and VCU ARC researcher. “The level of harm from alcohol is very high, from accidents, legal problems, social problems, employment problems, among others.”
Riley and Michael Miles, M.D., Ph.D., VCU ARC director and project lead, received the grant in February 2023, with funding beginning in April. The grant will support four Ph.D. candidate and two postdoctoral fellow positions. It will also provide funding for trainees to attend scientific conferences and purchase materials for independent projects. Miles, a professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology and the Department of Neurology, said this greatly enhances their experience because it “puts them in contact with more alcohol researchers out there and broadens their intellectual background.”
According to Miles, VCU ARC aims to integrate information gathered through different projects to understand alcohol's effect on the brain and other organ systems.
“It kills over 140,000 people in the United States a year," Miles said of alcohol use disorder. “A lot of people don’t realize how great of a problem it is.”
The T32 grant will provide $338,303 during its first year, which Miles noted will free up existing funds for other aspects of VCU ARC’s research. In preparation for the new mentees, he and Riley initiated new learning materials, including a lecture series and a student-run journal club on alcohol research.
Miles and Riley said they're eager to implement the new curriculum and help shape a new generation of early-career researchers into well-rounded scientists in alcohol research.
“It's great to see someone go from a student to a colleague,” Riley said. “That’s a very rewarding aspect of it.”
A new generation of scientists
Each incoming trainee will work closely with a VCU faculty mentor in the alcohol research field. Mentees will have nearly 40 faculty members to choose from across multiple departments and schools at VCU. Miles noted that the interdisciplinary nature of VCU ARC means researchers can collaborate with experts across a broad range of fields, including genetics, pharmacology, psychiatry and biology.
“I came to VCU because of the opportunity to mentor,” said Miles, who joined the School of Medicine faculty in 2001. “Each one of those students means a great deal to me. We spend a lot of time together.”
Winning a competitive T32 grant, together with the existing P50 grant, “brands VCU as a premier alcohol research center in the country,” Miles said, along with reflecting well on the individual trainees that are appointed to the funded positions.
“That funding is oftentimes the first grant they’ve ever received, hopefully one of many,” Miles said. “And it’s a recognition of their accomplishments that looks good when applying for grants in the future.”
One of Miles’ mentees appointed to the grant is Walker Rogers, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics with a concentration in quantitative genetics.
“It’s a dream come true,” Rogers said. “I get to focus on my experiments and alcohol research, rather than stressing about grants and funding opportunities right now.”
Under Miles and co-mentor Imad Damaj, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Rogers is studying the analgesic effects of alcohol and the genetic aspects of alcohol’s painkilling properties in preclinical models. Through this, Rogers is looking to document the molecular mechanisms of alcohol analgesia.
“Not everyone experiences that painkilling effect the same,” Rogers said. “A lot of people turn to alcohol to cope with chronic or acute pain, but drinking too much alcohol can cause painful health conditions, creating a feedback loop.”
Rogers said federal funding, like T32 grants, is an important piece to solving multifaceted and universal issues like alcohol use disorder.
“Alcohol use disorder is a massive problem in the United States and around the world,” Rogers said. “It's going to take a collaborative effort to make any sort of impact on a disease like that, and funding this research is an important part of the solution.”
Subscribe to VCU News
Subscribe to VCU News at newsletter.vcu.edu and receive a selection of stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings in your inbox.