Immune system emerges as potential partner in addressing opioid addiction

The immune system could play a key role in combating the opioid crisis, according to new research by the Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

Though the research is still early, the results says there's promise in specific immune system peptides, amino acid compounds that signal cells how to function. In this case, they may be affecting brain activity and, by extension, drug cravings, according to Erin Calipari, PhD, assistant professor of pharmacology and corresponding author on a paper.

"We found we could target these immune peptides and change the cravings that male mice and rats had for food and sugar," Calipari said. "Now we're looking at what we need to do before we can take this into human clinical trials. This is exciting because we see how peripheral systems such as the immune system could be influencing cravings."

Calipari is collaborating with Drew Kiraly, MD, PhD, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai on how these systems work and how to best translate the findings to help human patients.

There is no single cure for the complicated disease of addiction which, at its core, is a hijacking of the dopamine system that creates a cycle of substance abuse, said Calipari. However, individual addicts are heavily influenced by genetic or external factors, she said. Her lab is focused on neurological interventions that could help cut cravings while patients work on other contributing factors.

One example, according to researchers, is women are particularly vulnerable to addiction. Ultimately, the goal with this research is to be able to identify factors for various populations that are predictive of their vulnerability to addiction. From there, researchers want to target systems that could improve treatment outcomes, said Calipari.

"We're not going to find one treatment that fixes everything,” she said, “but we can, eventually, target different aspects of addiction for individual patients."