A new strategy for reducing opioid relapse

Bill Ibelle, Editorial Director

One of the biggest challenges in our nation’s escalating opioid epidemic is the high risk of relapse.

Barbara Waszczak Bouve College Health Sciences Northeastern University

Barbara Waszczak, Professor, School of Pharmacy

Nearly 60 percent of the opioid users who seek treatment use the drug again, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. This is due, at least in part, to changes in the brain that result in powerful physical and psychological cravings that can last a lifetime.

Pharmacology professor Barbara Waszczak is working on a solution. Based on her extensive research on the protein GDNF as a treatment for Parkinson’s Disease, she believes the protein may also suppress the pleasure reaction produced by opioids, and thereby reduce opioid craving.

“This will be different from using Antabuse to treat alcoholism, because it won’t make you sick,” said Waszczak. “It will hopefully just reduce interest in the drug.”

Although scientists have already established that GDNF (short for Glial cell-derived neurotrophic factor) has a beneficial effect on brain dopamine neurons, there is currently no safe way to get that protein to the brain. The protein is too large to cross the blood-brain barrier. So even if it’s injected into the bloodstream, it will never reach the brain.

The only existing option is to inject the protein directly into the brain. But this is an invasive procedure that requires surgery, anesthesia, precision, and the many risks of brain surgery. Injections may also have to be repeated multiple times to ensure continued relapse prevention.

“Surgical injection is just not a feasible methodology,” said Waszczak.

In her Parkinson’s research, Waszczak discovered and patented a way to bypass the blood-brain barrier by spraying nanoparticles with carry the gene to produce GDNF directly into the upper nasal passages, where they are transported directly into the brain. She believes a similar procedure could provide a simple, efficient, and inexpensive way to treat opioid users.

But first, she has to demonstrate that the intranasal GDNF nanoparticles will decrease opioid craving.

To do this, she will spend the next year as lead investigator on a study financed by the Chicago-based Brain Research Foundation. The grant will support an interdisciplinary team that includes neuroscience professor Craig Ferris, who specializes in brain imaging, and pharmaceutical sciences professor Greg Miller, who has designed numerous drug-related experiments using similar methodology. The team will include two graduate students who earned their undergraduate degrees at Northeastern in behavioral neuroscience: Sade Iriah ‘16, who is working on her master’s in public health, and Margee Kyada ‘17, who is working on her doctor of pharmacy degree.