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NIH awards VCU $2.6M to study opioid use disorder treatments

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Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University this week were awarded two grants totaling more than $2.6 million through the National Institutes of Health Helping to End Addiction Long-term Initiative, or NIH HEAL Initiative, to improve treatment for opioid addiction.

VCU’s School of Pharmacy, School of Medicine and C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research will lead studies to expand treatment options for opioid use disorder.

One study is designed to reformulate an existing opioid treatment medication as an alternative to methadone. VCU received $1.6 million for a two-year preclinical trial. Qingguo Xu, Ph.D., assistant professor of pharmaceutics in the VCU School of Pharmacy, will lead the study. The project also includes VCU researchers Matthew Halquist, Ph.D., assistant professor of pharmaceutics in the School of Pharmacy, and Charles O'Keeffe, professor of pharmacology and toxicology in the School of Medicine.

The second grant aims to identify a new opioid use disorder treatment with fewer side effects than existing treatments. VCU received nearly $1 million for the first year of this five-year study. Yan Zhang, Ph.D., professor of medicinal chemistry in the VCU School of Pharmacy, will direct the initial two-year preclinical study.

If these projects meet preclinical milestones, VCU will receive additional funding for subsequent three-year clinical trials. F. Gerard Moeller, M.D., director of the Wright Center and division chair for addiction psychiatry, will oversee the clinical trial phase of both studies at the VCU Center for Compounding Practice and Research.

Moeller is also eligible to lead the three-year clinical trial period on a third project for a novel medication that targets the ghrelin receptor to reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms and cravings, pending preclinical outcomes of a joint study with the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

VCU’s awards are part of 375 grant awards across 41 states made by the National Institutes of Health in fiscal year 2019 to apply scientific solutions to reverse the national opioid crisis. The NIH launched the HEAL Initiative in April 2018 to improve prevention and treatment strategies for opioid misuse and addiction and enhance pain management.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include Halquist and O'Keeffe and their roles in the preclinical study.