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Award Caps A Year Of Major Breakthroughs In Addiction-Related Research

By John Doe, Nov 18, 2010 | |
  1. John Doe
    Paul Kenny, an associate professor in the Department of Molecular Therapeutics on the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute, has been selected as the 2010 winner of the Jacob P. Waletzky Memorial Award for Innovative Research in Drug Addiction and Alcoholism.

    The award, which includes an honorarium of $25,000, was presented at Neuroscience 2010, the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting held this year in San Diego, CA.

    The award is given each year to a scientist who has conducted research in the area of substance abuse and the brain and nervous system. The award is intended to encourage innovative research into the neurobiology of drug addiction. The Waletzky family established the award in 2003 in memory of Jacob P. Waletzky, who died at the age of 29 from cocaine-induced cardiac arrhythmia.

    "I am deeply honored and very grateful to the society for this award," Kenny said. "Recognizing and supporting addiction research is critical if we want other young scientists to pursue it as their chosen field of study. Addiction is such a terrible burden on both individuals and society that we need more supporters like the society and the Waletzky family if we are ever to come to grips with it."

    The Society for Neuroscience is an organization of more than 38,000 basic scientists and clinicians who study the brain and nervous system.

    A Productive Year

    The award caps a strikingly productive year for Kenny, who first joined Scripps Research as a postdoctoral fellow in 2000. In 2010, he published three major studies in highly prestigious journals.

    He also created something of a global sensation last March, when one of these breakthrough studies closely linked the problems of obesity and compulsive eating to those of drug addiction. In the study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, Kenny and his colleague Paul M. Johnson were able to show that similar molecular mechanisms that drive people into drug addiction can underpin the compulsion to overeat.

    Publications around the world heralded the discovery, focusing on the point obese patients have been making for years - that, like addiction to other substances, junk food binging is extremely difficult to stop. Looking back on it, Kenny is still amazed at the interest.

    "The findings seem to have to have touched a nerve," he said. "My wife was reading a health food magazine the other day and there was a discussion about our study in it. I picked up a magazine in the local supermarket and found a reference to our work."

    While surreal in some ways and gratifying in others, all the attention still makes him uncomfortable. "Because it's just one study I don't want the potential impact of the findings to be inflated out of proportion," he said. "As a scientist, you want to see it replicated by other scientists many times so that you know that the findings are robust across different laboratories. Moreover, we want to understand the precise molecular underpinnings of the phenomenon and its relevance to humans before we get too excited. However, I am confident that these and similar studies are revealing new and important links between compulsive eating and drug use."

    New Ground in Cocaine Addiction

    While the obesity study garnered the most headlines, Kenny's other two studies also broke impressive scientific ground.

    In May, Kenny and his colleagues, including Jonathan Hollander and Purva Bali, published a study in the renowned journal Nature that showed a particular type of microRNA played a key role in determining vulnerability to cocaine addiction. The research offered an entirely new direction for the development of anti-addiction therapies.

    An emerging theme in neuroscience is that microRNAs might play important roles in complex psychiatric disorders, but until Kenny's study little was actually known about their involvement in addiction.

    "The key question that the study addressed is why one person may be more vulnerable to the effects of cocaine than another," Kenny said.

    Finally, in August Kenny and his colleague Heh-In Im tackled the problem of cocaine addiction once more, identifying a protein that may control the addictive impact of cocaine in the brain through regulation of microRNAs, an impressive follow-up to the earlier microRNA study. That study appeared in Nature Neuroscience.

    "MicroRNAs appear to link various signaling pathways in brain reward systems that in the past were thought to be somewhat independent," Kenny said. "When we started, we thought microRNAs would simply be modulating factors that could subtly influence drug-taking behavior. Now we've found that they play a central role in drug addiction."

    The obvious problem to be solved, Kenny said, is how to transform these new findings into something that can actually work in humans to reduce addiction.

    "As we better understand how microRNAs work in brain reward systems, hopefully we will reveal new targets for therapeutic development that we wouldn't have considered before," said Kenny. "It's an exciting time."

    18 Nov 2010 - 3:00 PST
    Mika Ono
    Scripps Research Institute


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