Northeastern hosts a national conference to explore new ways to fight addiction

Top addiction researchers from around the nation will gather on the Northeastern campus August 1 and 2 for the fourth annual conference dedicated to advances in medical treatments of drug abuse.

The conference—The Chemistry and Pharmacology of Drug Abuse—is organized each year by Bouve’s Alexandros Makriyannis, director of Northeastern’s Center for Drug Discovery.

Alexandros Makriyannis, Photo by Mary Knox Merrill

“The conference is a forum for top researchers to share their findings on one of the most pressing issues of our time,” said Makriyannis, who has joint appointments to the Bouvé College of Health Sciences and the College of Science.

“This requires a multi-disciplinary approach, which is why our speakers will include medicinal chemists, molecular biologists, pharmacologists, and clinical specialists. These experts work in leading universities, research hospitals, institutions such as NIH, and biotech companies.”

Makriyannis has an international reputation for his pioneering work on the endocannabinoid system, which helps govern pain, addiction, inflammation, and cognition.

The conference will focus on two primary challenges facing modern medicine—understanding the biological roots of addiction, and finding new drugs and receptor pathways that can relieve intense and persistent pain without the addictive effects of opioids.

“This is the holy grail for researchers in pain management and the treatment of substance abuse,” said Makriyannis.

With this goal in mind, conference participants will discuss the way opioids and cannabinoids function in the body and alternative pathways for treating pain, addiction, seizures, obesity, and more.

The keynote speaker, Bryan Roth of the University of North Carolina, will describe novel technologies being used to explore the structure and function of drug receptors (GPCRs), particularly the opioid and cannabinoid receptors. Expanding knowledge of these receptors will help researchers create novel medications for pain that are safer and more effective.

Another promising line of research involves CBD, the second major active ingredient in marijuana along with THC. There is widespread hope that this chemical can produce the medicinal effects of marijuana without the “high” and other side effects produced by THC.

One of the most controversial topics the conference will explore is Kratom, a natural product that has some opioid-like effects. It is sold legally in most of the U.S. despite considerable concern about its potential side effects. Kratom grows naturally in Southeast Asia and is widely used as a recreational drug in the U.S. In low doses, it acts as a stimulant, and in higher doses, it produces the euphoria and sedation similar to other opioids.

In 2016, the FDA tried to classify Kratom as a Schedule I drug along with heroin, LSD, and ecstasy, but withdrew its recommendation under pressure from the public and Congress. But earlier this year, the FDA renewed its push to control the substance by issuing a warning that Kratom has the same effect on opioid receptors as morphine and thus poses a high risk of addiction.

The concern is based largely on how little is known about the pharmacological function and addictive qualities of Kratom. Researchers have also been exploring its potential as a pain medication and tool in fighting opioid dependency.

“Our focus is to provide a balanced view of its benefits and ill effects,” said Makriyannis.

The annual conference is funded by Northeastern and the National Institutes on Drug Abuse.

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