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SUPERMOUSE! The key to breaking the cycle of alcohol addiction? It could very well be a rodent that can’t get drunk.
Above and right:
Looking for new ways to treat people suffering from alcohol abuse, neuroscience professor Jon PierceShimomura and his lab are working to develop a mutant mouse that stays sober. Opposite: Students who participate in the College of Pharmacy’s Poverty Simulation go beyond the classroom for a glimpse of what life is like for those who struggle to get by. CREDITS: Courtesy Connor
Murphy/The Daily Texan; Marsha Miller; Vicki Matustik
ince medical science has yet to pinpoint the exact molecular
processes of intoxication and withdrawal, therapies to treat alcohol-related disorders remain hit or miss. Enter neuroscience professor Jon Pierce-Shimomura and his team in UT’s Waggoner
Center for Alcohol & Addiction Research, who have made a discovery with the potential to usher in a new era of addiction treatment. While drinking responsibly is one of life’s simple pleasures for some, for others alcohol fundamentally alters the way their brain works. This may compel them to drink more than they should, and not only that, to enter an endless cycle of debilitating withdrawal symptoms. One problem, Pierce-Shimomura says, is that people often won’t take a pill to curtail their drinking when they feel well. They’re more receptive to treatment while experiencing alcohol withdrawal, which can bring symptoms like severe anxiety, tremors, and even seizures.
“Because patients want to avoid these symptoms, withdrawal is an ideal point to intervene in the cycle of alcohol abuse,” he says. “Heavy drinkers who suddenly and significantly curtail consumption experience withdrawal because the sedative effects of alcohol are no longer suppressing normal excitatory brain activity. That, in turn, leads to a hyperactivity that results in anxiety and tremors.” Unfortunately, current medical treatments mimic the effects of alcohol as doctors treat patients with sedatives to relieve their
withdrawal symptoms. The challenge, says Pierce-Shimomura, is to develop an innovative and more specific way to overcome alcohol withdrawal without sedating the patient. In the United States, where an injury or death occurs every two minutes due to drunk driving, and one in four hospital beds in medical wards is devoted to patients recovering from alcohol toxicity and withdrawal, a proven medical solution to alcohol abuse would be a world-changing breakthrough. All animals, from worms to mice to humans, become intoxicated by alcohol and experience its withdrawal symptoms, because it acts in the same way on the same molecules in their nervous systems. Knowing this, Pierce-Shimomura and his lab studied how alcohol activates a target in a worm’s nervous system called the BK potassium channel. This channel suppresses neuron activity in the brain, presumably resulting in the sluggishness one feels when intoxicated. The lab discovered that mutating one portion of the BK channel prevents alcohol activation. Additionally, the mutation significantly reduces alcohol withdrawal. Because mice and humans have this same BK channel, the next step is to introduce the worm’s mutation to a mouse. The goal, says Pierce-Shimomura, is to develop a mutant mouse that stays sober and avoids withdrawal. Given that those are powers that elude normal mice and men, he calls it the Supermouse. “Positive results would lead to drug development that specifically targets the BK channel,” he says. “It would hopefully signify a novel and truly effective, non-sedative, and non-addictive treatment for those suffering from alcohol abuse.” To help fund the mouse’s development, Pierce-Shimomura turned to HornRaiser, an increasingly popular online crowdfunding platform for the campus community. Setting a goal of $12,000, the Supermouse! campaign attracted a diverse group of UT alumni and friends who gave a combined $13,148 to help further the research. One of those was Tom Calhoon, BBA ’82, who read about the project in the Austin AmericanStatesman. Inspired by the discovery’s potential, he made a donation that put the campaign over its goal and says he hopes to continue his support. “I have grown to see the awful side effects of alcohol,” Calhoon says. “I used to think it was not only impossible, but a silly suggestion to quit drinking. My father, a heart surgeon, said to me at the end of his life that he was really surprised I was able to quit. Well, me too! I never take it for granted.” The beauty of HornRaiser is that compelling projects can catch the attention of people far and wide through social media. Cheryl Lansker of Hawaii, for instance, found out about Supermouse! from a Facebook post of her friend and fellow Aloha State resident Charlene Dyer. Both women donated. Neither had a connection to UT until now. “Alcohol and drugs have greatly impacted my life, the lives of my family, and many of my friends,” Lansker says. “It’s heartbreaking to see someone active in their disease, and I would like to see better treatments for addiction. This project struck me as having the potential to do just that.” Visit the Waggoner Center for Alcohol & Addiction Research at utexas.edu/research/wcaar. Learn about other UT projects at hornraiser.utexas.edu.
DISCARDING ASSUMPTIONS, GAINING UNDERSTANDING
hey gather early on a winter Saturday, not exactly sure what to expect from the next couple of hours. They’ve signed on for the Poverty Simulation. Taking on the persona of one of the 45 million Americans who daily face significant financial challenges, or perhaps assuming the role of a staffer at a business or agency that works with indigent communities, the 80 simulation participants are about to get a glimpse of what it means to be truly poor. The College of Pharmacy hosts the experience, which draws students and faculty not just from pharmacy but also nursing, social work, communication, and pre-med majors. Last year, Target was a sponsor. This year the St. David’s Foundation has provided funding, and additional philanthropic partners are being sought. The federal poverty level, as calculated in terms of annual income for a family of four, is $24,250. It doesn’t take long for the participants to start appreciating the challenges faced by anyone living below it. “One of the most eye-opening things for me was the intense level of stress I experienced,” says pharmacy student Sara Rumbellow. “Navigating a system I did not fully understand while feeling embarrassed and stressed about not being able to pay bills was very intimidating.” Students are confronted with the reality faced by some of their future patients and clients: living within a Future health small budget and with little free time care providers as circumstances conspire against them. Collaborating among their face the reality assigned family unit, the participants of poverty. are challenged to secure food, water, shelter, and other basic necessities by interacting with volunteers who represent public schools and work environments, utilities, pawnshops and quick-loan firms, grocery stores, and social service agencies. “The simulation helps increase our empathy toward those we serve,” says Veronica Young, Pharmacy’s interprofessional education director. “It helps us set aside preconceived notions of what we think it means to live in poverty and better appreciate the stress and daily struggles of those living with disparity.” “I wish every health care student could participate in a simulation like this in order to expand their world view,” says student organizer Alex Bishop. “It goes beyond what can be taught in a classroom.” Additional donor support would allow the College of Pharmacy to offer the Poverty Simulation more often than once a year, reaching more students. To contribute, contact Susan Brown, assistant dean for development and alumni relations, at email@example.com or 512-475-9758. s e p t e m b e r | o c t o b e r 2011
Featured in The Alcalde, Mar/Apr 2016