An interdisciplinary approach to drug-abuse research

More than 50 students and faculty, along with academic, industry and governmental partners of Northeastern’s Center for Drug Discovery, convened earlier this month for the 10th annual symposium on current trends in drug-abuse research.

The CDD takes an interdisciplinary approach to discovering novel medications and drug-development methods. The daylong symposium featured presentations on a variety of research areas, each important to understanding the biology of addiction and the discovery of therapeutic interventions for those addictions.

At the beginning of the day, CDD Director Alexandros Makriyannis — the George D. Behrakis Chair in Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, who holds joint appointments in the College of Science and the Bouvé College of Health Sciences — noted that presentations would relate to drugs of abuse as well as conditions connected to drug abuse. “It will be a truly interdisciplinary event,” he said, noting that the topics would range from the identification of novel targets for insulin resistance to a potential chemical approach for diagnosing certain types of cancer.

Northeastern doctoral candidates Kyle Whitten and Mahmoud Nasr presented results from two distinct areas of research in the Makriyannis lab.

Whitten focused his talk on the synthesis of a class of novel chemicals and their interactions with the endocannabinoid system. Nasr focused his discussion on the importance of new nanoprobes for identifying elevated levels of monoacylglycerol lipase, a molecule associated with many cancers.

“You could use this method to selectively label a single protein,” Nasr said.

David Janero, the center’s deputy director, ushered the program. The graduate student presentations, he said, demonstrated the “kind of meshwork between chemistry and biology that is at the foundation of drug discovery.”

Two keynote speakers, Jane Acri of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and Lakshmi Devi of Mt. Sinai Medical School, examined the receptors involved in drug addiction, which must be understood in order to develop intervention strategies.

“We’re not just developing drugs ourselves,” said Acri, who is part of NIDA’s medication discovery program. “We’re also trying to help you develop drugs.”

In another presentation, Jack Bergman, a collaborator of the Makriyannis lab based at the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital, described the behavioral effects of several of the center’s drugs, which, unlike their commercially available counterparts, have significantly fewer side effects.