Dr. Luis Tuesta wins the NIH Avenir Award to pursue innovative opioid addiction research
By Sandy Weiskittel
Photography by Maria Lalama
uis M. Tuesta, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, has been awarded the Avenir Award from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, to study the epigenetic mechanisms of microglial activation and their role in shaping the behavioral course of opioid use disorder. The goal is to find new therapeutic targets to prevent opioid relapse and achieve long-term abstinence.
Dr. Tuesta and the Miller School will receive $2.3 million over five years from the NIH. He’s one of four researchers in the country to receive the award grant in 2020. Dr. Tuesta joined the university’s medical faculty in 2019, following a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School.
A prestigious grant
Epigenetics refers to factors that determine how genes are expressed without involving changes in the DNA sequence itself. Dr. Tuesta’s team will explore how microglial genes become “open and closed for business” across various phases of opioid addiction and how specific epigenetic remodelers can contribute to this regulation.
Exploring new therapeutic avenues
Results from these studies have the potential not just to broaden our understanding of the epigenetic mechanisms underlying opioid use disorder but also to push the field of addiction epigenetics beyond the neuron and explore a cell type that could yield exciting, completely different therapeutic avenues for treating this devastating disease.
Ideally, a treatment drug would reverse microglia changes brought on by opioids and curb the intense craving associated with opioid abstinence and withdrawal. Such an approach could help reduce the likelihood of relapse in recovering individuals.
“Ultimately, we want to manipulate the root of the craving with a drug to change the behavioral course of addiction,” Dr. Tuesta said.