VCU receives NIH grant to expand Alcohol Research Center

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Virginia Commonwealth University has received a federal grant totaling $6.9 million to study the genetics of alcohol abuse and alcoholism — work that may lead to further advances in its treatment, control and prevention.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism awarded VCU a five-year P50 Center Grant to expand the VCU Alcohol Research Center, a multidisciplinary center that focuses on preclinical and clinical studies to advance the understanding and root cause of alcohol abuse and alcoholism. The VCU Alcohol Research Center was first established in 2009 through the support of a National Institutes of Health P20 Developmental Center grant.

There are only 15 other similar centers funded by NIAAA in the country.

Kenneth S. Kendler, M.D.
Kenneth S. Kendler, M.D.

“This award is a culmination of nearly a decade-long collaborative research effort spanning the Departments of Psychiatry, Pharmacology and Toxicology, and Human and Molecular Genetics at VCU,” said center director and principal investigator for the grant, Kenneth S. Kendler, M.D., professor of psychiatry, and human and molecular genetics in the VCU School of Medicine.

“We have been able to combine our expertise in animal models of the effects of alcohol with a well-developed research program in the human molecular genetics of alcoholism at the Virginia Institute of Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics. Using increasingly sophisticated statistical and bioinformatic methods, we have built scientific bridges between the effects of genes on the responses to alcohol in worms, fruit flies, mice, rats and humans. That is a lot of evolutionary landscape to cover! The combined power of these methods gives us a realistic chance of clarifying the genetic systems that impact on vulnerability to human alcohol problems, a goal that has so far largely eluded the scientific community,” Kendler said.

In recent years, researchers have begun using approaches such as genome-wide association studies or genomic expression profiling to delve into diseases such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease and mental illness. These approaches allow for researchers to rapidly scan complete sets of DNA to identify genetic variations linked to a disease.

Through the center, VCU researchers from across disciplines in the VCU School of Medicine — including the Departments of Psychiatry, Pharmacology and Toxicology, and Human and Molecular Genetics, have come together to share their expertise, and focus on gene networks contributing to alcohol abuse and alcoholism, as opposed to examining a single gene.

Further, the grant supports five research projects and pilot grants that will focus on genetic studies in different preclinical and clinical models of alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

Michael Miles, M.D., Ph.D.
Michael Miles, M.D., Ph.D.

“Recent advances in genetics and molecular neuroscience indicate that many genes influence the risk for alcoholism, each likely with small contribution,” said center scientific director Michael Miles, M.D., Ph.D., professor of pharmacology, toxicology and neurology in the VCU School of Medicine and Center for Study of Biological Complexity.

“So, how do we translate this information into new treatments? Our center is approaching this by focusing on gene networks so that we can identify major control ‘hubs’ influencing alcohol behaviors. We also are using a cross-species genetic approach to more rapidly validate that such hubs indeed act on alcohol-related behaviors. These two features were both identified by the reviewers of our P50 application as unique strengths of the VCU Alcohol Research Center,” Miles said.

In addition to Kendler and Miles, co-principal investigators of individual pilot projects or core projects include researchers from multiple departments in the VCU School of Medicine. Andrew Davies, Ph.D., assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology; Jill Bettinger, Ph.D., associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology; Brien Riley, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry; Danielle Dick, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry; Michael Grotewiel, Ph.D., professor of human genetics; M. Scott Bowers, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry, pharmacology and toxicology, and neuroscience; Darlene Brunzell, Ph.D., associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology; B. Todd Webb, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry; Silviu Bacanu, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry; Fazil Aliev, Ph.D., a research associate in the Department of Psychiatry; Imad Damaj, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology and toxicology; and Mark Reimers, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and biostatistics.

The project is supported by grant number 1P50AA022537.