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Coping with the Collision of Public Health Crises: COVID-19 and Substance Use Disorders

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For the past half-dozen years, I’ve had the privilege of attending the Rx Drug and Heroin Abuse Summit. And I was counting on learning more about this national crisis this April in Nashville, where I was scheduled to take part in a session with Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse. But because of the physical distancing needed to help flatten the deadly curve of the coronavirus-19 (COVID-19) pandemic, it proved to be impossible for anyone to attend in person. Still, the summit did go on for almost three days—virtually!

Dr. Volkow and I took part by sharing a video of a recent conversation we had via videoconference. Since we couldn’t take live questions, we solicited some in advance. Here’s a condensed transcript highlighting portions of our dialogue that focused on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on individuals struggling with substance abuse disorders, along with all those who are trying to help them.

VOLKOW: Hello, Francis. Nice to see you, virtually!

COLLINS: Nice to see you too. I’m in my home office here, where I’ve been pretty much for the last three weeks. I’ve been stepping outdoors to occasionally get a breath of fresh air, but trying to live up to all those recommendations about social distancing—or at least physical distancing. I’m trying to keep my social connections going, even if they’re electronic.

I think we’re all feeling this is a time of some stress for us at NIH. We are trying to do everything we can to address this COVID crisis and speed up the process of developing vaccines and therapeutics and all kinds of other things. How are you doing? What’s it like being sequestered back in your home space when you are somebody with so much energy?

VOLKOW: Francis, it’s not easy. I actually am very, very restless. We probably are all experiencing that anxiety of uncertainty, looking at the news and how devastating it is. But I think what makes it easier is if we can do something. Working with everything that we have to try to help others, I think, provides some relief.

COLLINS: Yes, we’re going to talk about that right now. In fact, let’s talk about the way in which this crisis, the global pandemic called COVID-19, is colliding with another public health crisis, which is that of substance use disorder. You recently wrote about this collision in an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine. What does this mean? What are some of the unique challenges that COVID-19 brings to people suffering from addiction?

VOLKOW: I’m glad you are bringing up this point because it’s one of the issues of greatest concern for all of us who are working in the field of substance use disorders. We had not yet been able to contain the epidemic of opioid fatalities, and then we were hit by this tsunami of COVID.

We immediately can recognize the unique challenges of COVID-19 for people having an addiction. Some of these are structural; the healthcare system is not prepared to take care of them. They relate also to stigma and social issues. The concept of social distancing makes such people even more vulnerable because it interferes with many of the support systems that can help them to reach recovery. And, on top of that, drugs themselves negatively influence human physiology, making one more vulnerable to getting infected and more vulnerable to worse outcomes. So that’s why there is tremendous concern about these two epidemics colliding with one another.

COLLINS: How has this influenced treatment delivery for people with substance use disorders, who are counting on that to be able to keep themselves from slipping backward?

VOLKOW: Well, that has been very challenging. We’re hearing from multiple sources that it’s become harder for patients to be able to access treatment. And that relates, for example, to access of medications for opioid use disorders, which are the main strategy—and the most effective one—that we have to prevent people from dying from overdoses.

Some clinics are decreasing the number of patients that they can take care of. The healthcare system is also much less able to initiate persons on buprenorphine. And because of social isolation, if you overdose, the likelihood that someone can rescue you with naloxone is much lower. We don’t yet have statistics on about how that’s influencing fatalities, but we are very concerned.

COLLINS: Nora, you are one of the lead persons for NIH’s Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) initiative. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected all the grand research plans that we had put in place as part of our big vision of how NIH could help with the substance use disorder crisis?

VOLKOW: Well, $900 million had recently been deployed on research. That is incredibly meritorious, and some of that research had already started. Unfortunately, it has had to stop almost completely. Why? Because the research that’s relying on the healthcare system, for example, is no longer able to focus on research when they have other clinical needs to meet.

Also, research to bring medication-assisted treatments to prison inmates has stopped. Prisons are not allowing the researchers to go on site because they are closing the doors to outsiders, since they are places at high risk for the spread of COVID-19. Furthermore, some institutional review boards (IRBs) are actually closing, making it impossible to recruit patients for the clinical trials. So, most studies have come to a halt. The issue now is how can we become creative and use virtual technologies to advance some of the goals that we aim to achieve with the HEAL initiative.

COLLINS: Of course, this applies to many other areas of NIH-supported research. Most clinical trials, unless they’re for life-threating conditions, are pretty much in a state of hibernation. We can’t justify having people get out there in ways that might put them at risk of COVID-19. So, yes, it’s a tough time for clinical research all over. And that’s certainly what’s happened with the opioid use disorder problems. Still, I think our teams are really devoted to making sure they make the best of this time, doing things that they can do in terms of planning and setting up data systems.

Meanwhile, bring us up to date on what’s happened as far as the state of the opioid crisis. Are there trends there that we ought to look at for a minute?

VOLKOW: Yes, it’s important to actually keep our eyes on the epidemic, because it’s changing so very rapidly. It’s gone from prescription opioids to heroin to synthetic opioids like fentanyl. And what we have observed ramping up over the past two or three years is an increase in fatalities from the use of psychostimulant drugs.

For example, the number of deaths from methamphetamine has increased five-fold over a period of six years. Similarly, deaths from cocaine are going up. The reality is that people are now dying not just from opioids, but from mixtures of drugs and stimulant drugs, most notably methamphetamine.

COLLINS: So, what can we learn from what we’ve been doing about opioid addiction, and try to apply that to this emerging methamphetamine crisis?

VOLKOW: Unfortunately, we do not have effective medications to treat methamphetamine addiction like we do for opioid use disorders. We also do not have an overdose reversal like we have with naloxone. So, in that respect, it is more challenging.

COLLINS: People sometimes think we’re only focused on trying to treat the problems that we have now. What about prevention? One of the questions we received in our HEAL mailbox was: How can small town communities create an environment where addiction does not take root in the next generation of young people? I’m sure you want to talk about the rewarding power of social interactions, even though right now we’re being somewhat deprived of those, at least face-to-face.

VOLKOW: I’m glad you’re bringing up that question, Francis. Because when you asked at the start of our conversation about how I am doing, I sort of said, “Well, it’s not easy.” But the positive component was that sense that we have a shared mission: we can help others. And the lack of a sense of mission, the lack of a purpose in life, has been identified as one of the factors that make people more vulnerable to take drugs.

Feeling irrelevant, feeling that no one cares for you, is probably one of the most devastating feelings a human being can have. Epidemiological studies show that social isolation and neglect increase dramatically the risk of taking drugs, and, if you are trying to stop taking drugs, it increases that risk of relapse. And so that’s an issue right now of great concern. The challenge is “How do we provide social support for people at risk of substance abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic?”

Also, independent of COVID-19, I think that we as a nation have to face the concept that we have made America vulnerable to drugs because we have eroded that social sense of community. If we are to prevent future generations from getting addicted to drugs, we should build meaningful interactions between people. We should give each individual an opportunity to be part of a society that appreciates them. We do need each other in very, very fundamental ways. We need others for our well-being. If we don’t have that then we become very vulnerable.

COLLINS: Well, here’s one last question from the mailbox. Somebody notes that the “L” in HEAL stands for “long-term.” That is, Helping End Addiction Long-term. The questioner asks: “What’s our vision of a long-term goal and how do we imagine getting there?”

Mine very simply is that we would have an environment that would support people in productive ways, so that the distractions of things that turn out to be destructive are not so tempting, and that the possibility of having meaning in everyone’s life becomes greater.

Ironically, because of COVID-19, we are in the midst of a circumstance where economic distress is pressing on people and social distancing is being required. Seems like we’re going the wrong way. But if you look back in history, often these times of national crisis have been times when people did have the chance to survey what really matters around them, and perhaps to regain a sense of meaning and significance. That’s my maybe slightly over-optimistic view of the current era that we’re in.

Nora, what do you think?

VOLKOW: Francis, I will agree with you. I think that we need to create a society that provides social support and allows people to participate in a meaningful way. If we want to achieve integration of people into society, one of the things that we need to do urgently is remove the stigma of addiction because when you stigmatise someone, you are socially isolating them.

No one likes to be mistreated or discriminated against. So, if you are a person who is addicted and you are afraid of discrimination, you will not seek help. You will continue to isolate. So I think as we’re dealing with the opioid crisis, as we’re dealing with COVID-19, we cannot tolerate discrimination. We cannot tolerate stigma. And we need to be very creative to identify it and to create models that will actually eliminate it.

COLLINS: That’s a wonderful view of where we need to get to. All of these developments give me hope for our capacity to deal with this crisis by working together.

I want to say to all of you who’re listening to this in your own virtual spaces, how much I admire the work that you all are doing, in a selfless way, to try to help our nation deal with what has clearly been a terrible tragedy in far too many lives. I wish you all the best in continuing those creative and energetic efforts, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. NIH wants to be your ally. We want to be your source of information. We want to be your source of evidence for what works. We want to be your friends.

So, thank you for listening, and thank you, Nora Volkow, for joining me in this discussion today with all of the talent and leadership that you represent. I wish the best health to all of you. Stay safe and keep the progress going!

Links:

Video: Fireside Chat Between NIH, NIDA Heads Addresses COVID-19, the HEAL Initiative, and the Opioids Crisis (National Institute on Drug Abuse/NIH)

COVID-19 Resources (NIDA)

COVID-19: Potential Implications for Individuals with Substance Use Disorders, Nora’s Blog (NIDA)

NIDA Director outlines potential risks to people who smoke and use drugs during COVID-19 pandemic (NIDA)

Collision of the COVID-19 and Addiction Epidemics. Volkow ND. Ann Intern Med. 2 April 2020. [Epub ahead of print]

Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative (NIH)

Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit, A 2020 Virtual Experience


Finding New Genetic Mutations Amid Healthy Cells

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Po-Ruh Loh
Po-Ru Loh Courtesy of Loh Lab

You might recall learning in biology class that the cells constantly replicating and dividing in our bodies all carry the same DNA, inherited in equal parts from each parent. But it’s become increasingly clear in recent years that even seemingly healthy tissues contain neighborhoods of cells bearing their own acquired genetic mutations. The question is: What do all those altered cells mean for our health?

With support from a 2018 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, Po-Ru Loh, Harvard Medical School, Boston, is on a quest to find out, though without the need for sequencing lots of DNA in his own lab. Loh will instead develop ultrasensitive computational tools to pick up on those often-subtle alterations within the vast troves of genomic data already stored in databases around the world.

How is that possible? The math behind it might be complex, but the underlying idea is surprisingly simple. His algorithms look for spots in the genome where a slight imbalance exists in the quantity of DNA inherited from mom versus dad.

Actually, Loh can’t tell from the data which parent provided any snippet of chromosomal DNA. But looking at DNA sequenced from a mixture of many cells, he can infer which stretches of DNA were most likely inherited together from a single parent.

Any slight skew in those quantities point the way to genomic territory where a tiny portion of chromosomal DNA either went missing or became duplicated in some cells. This common occurrence, especially in older adults, leads to a condition called genetic mosaicism, meaning that, contrary to most biology textbooks, all cells aren’t exactly the same.

By detecting those subtle imbalances in the data, Loh can pinpoint small DNA alterations, even when they occur in 1 in 1,000 cells collected from a person’s bloodstream, saliva, or tissues. That’s the kind of sensitivity that most scientists would not have thought possible.

Loh has already begun putting his new computational approach to work, as reported in Nature last year [1]. In DNA data from blood samples of more than 150,000 participants in the United Kingdom Biobank, his method uncovered well over 8,000 mosaic chromosomal alterations.

The study showed that some of those alterations were associated with an increased risk of developing blood cancers. However, it’s important to note that most people with evidence of mosaicism won’t go on to develop cancer. The researchers also made the unexpected discovery that some individuals carried genetic variants that made them more prone than others to pick up new mutations in their blood cells.

What’s especially exciting is Loh’s computational tools now make it possible to search for signs of mosaicism within all the genetic data that’s ever been generated. Even more importantly, these tools will allow Loh and other researchers to ask and answer important questions about the consequences of mosaicism for a wide range of diseases.

Reference:

[1] Insights into clonal haematopoiesis from 8,342 mosaic chromosomal alterations. Loh PR, Genovese G, Handsaker RE, Finucane HK, Reshef YA, Palamara PF, Birmann BM, Talkowski ME, Bakhoum SF, McCarroll SA, Price AL. Nature. 2018 Jul;559(7714):350-355.

Links:

Loh Lab (Harvard Medical School, Boston)

Loh Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (Common Fund)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences


New Grants Explore Benefits of Music on Health

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It’s not every day you get to perform with one of the finest voices on the planet. What an honor it was to join renowned opera singer Renée Fleming back in May for a rendition of “How Can I Keep from Singing?” at the NIH’s J. Edward Rall Cultural Lecture. Yet our duet was so much more. Between the song’s timeless message and Renée’s matchless soprano, the music filled me with a profound sense of joy, like being briefly lifted outside myself into a place of beauty and well-being. How does that happen?

Indeed, the benefits of music for human health and well-being have long been recognized. But biomedical science still has a quite limited understanding of music’s mechanisms of action in the brain, as well as its potential to ease symptoms of an array of disorders including Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In a major step toward using rigorous science to realize music’s potential for improving human health, NIH has just awarded $20 million over five years to support the first research projects of the Sound Health initiative. Launched a couple of years ago, Sound Health is a partnership between NIH and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in association with the National Endowment for the Arts.

With support from 10 NIH institutes and centers, the Sound Health awardees will, among other things, study how music might improve the motor skills of people with Parkinson’s disease. Previous research has shown that the beat of a metronome can steady the gait of someone with Parkinson’s disease, but more research is needed to determine exactly why that happens.

Other fascinating areas to be explored by the Sound Health awardees include:

• Assessing how active music interventions, often called music therapies, affect multiple biomarkers that correlate with improvement in health status. The aim is to provide a more holistic understanding of how such interventions serve to ease cancer-related stress and possibly even improve immune function.

• Investigating the effects of music on the developing brain of infants as they learn to talk. Such work may be especially helpful for youngsters at high risk for speech and language disorders.

• Studying synchronization of musical rhythm as part of social development. This research will look at how this process is disrupted in children with autism spectrum disorder, possibly suggesting ways of developing music-based interventions to improve communication.

• Examining the memory-related impacts of repeated exposures to a certain song or musical phrase, including those “earworms” that get “stuck” in our heads. This work might tell us more about how music sometimes serves as a cue for retrieving associated memories, even in people whose memory skills are impaired by Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive disorders.

• Tracing the developmental timeline—from childhood to adulthood—of how music shapes the brain. This will include studying how musical training at different points on that timeline may influence attention span, executive function, social/emotional functioning, and language skills.

We are fortunate to live in an exceptional time of discovery in neuroscience, as well as an extraordinary era of creativity in music. These Sound Health grants represent just the beginning of what I hope will be a long and productive partnership that brings these creative fields together. I am convinced that the power of science holds tremendous promise for improving the effectiveness of music-based interventions, and expanding their reach to improve the health and well-being of people suffering from a wide variety of conditions.

Links:

The Soprano and the Scientist: A Conversation About Music and Medicine, (National Public Radio, June 2, 2017)

NIH Workshop on Music and Health, January 2017

Sound Health (NIH)

NIH Support: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health; National Eye Institute; National Institute on Aging; National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism; National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders; National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of Nursing Research; Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research; Office of the Director


Study Finds Genetic Mutations in Healthy Human Tissues

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General mutations throughout the body

The standard view of biology is that every normal cell copies its DNA instruction book with complete accuracy every time it divides. And thus, with a few exceptions like the immune system, cells in normal, healthy tissue continue to contain exactly the same genome sequence as was present in the initial single-cell embryo that gave rise to that individual. But new evidence suggests it may be time to revise that view.

By analyzing genetic information collected throughout the bodies of nearly 500 different individuals, researchers discovered that almost all had some seemingly healthy tissue that contained pockets of cells bearing particular genetic mutations. Some even harbored mutations in genes linked to cancer. The findings suggest that nearly all of us are walking around with genetic mutations within various parts of our bodies that, under certain circumstances, may have the potential to give rise to cancer or other health conditions.

Efforts such as NIH’s The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) have extensively characterized the many molecular and genomic alterations underlying various types of cancer. But it has remained difficult to pinpoint the precise sequence of events that lead to cancer, and there are hints that so-called normal tissues, including blood and skin, might contain a surprising number of mutations —perhaps starting down a path that would eventually lead to trouble.

In the study published in Science, a team from the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard, led by Gad Getz and postdoctoral fellow Keren Yizhak, along with colleagues from Massachusetts General Hospital, decided to take a closer look. They turned their attention to the NIH’s Genotype-Tissue Expression (GTEx) project.

The GTEx is a comprehensive public resource that shows how genes are expressed and controlled differently in various tissues throughout the body. To capture those important differences, GTEx researchers analyzed messenger RNA sequences within thousands of healthy tissue samples collected from people who died of causes other than cancer.

Getz, Yizhak, and colleagues wanted to use that extensive RNA data in another way: to detect mutations that had arisen in the DNA genomes of cells within those tissues. To do it, they devised a method for comparing those tissue-derived RNA samples to the matched normal DNA. They call the new method RNA-MuTect.

All told, the researchers analyzed RNA sequences from 29 tissues, including heart, stomach, pancreas, and fat, and matched DNA from 488 individuals in the GTEx database. Those analyses showed that the vast majority of people—a whopping 95 percent—had one or more tissues with pockets of cells carrying new genetic mutations.

While many of those genetic mutations are most likely harmless, some have known links to cancer. The data show that genetic mutations arise most often in the skin, esophagus, and lung tissues. This suggests that exposure to environmental elements—such as air pollution in the lung, carcinogenic dietary substances in the esophagus, or the ultraviolet radiation in sunlight that hits the skin—may play important roles in causing genetic mutations in different parts of the body.

The findings clearly show that, even within normal tissues, the DNA in the cells of our bodies isn’t perfectly identical. Rather, mutations constantly arise, and that makes our cells more of a mosaic of different mutational events. Sometimes those altered cells may have a subtle growth advantage, and thus continue dividing to form larger groups of cells with slightly changed genomic profiles. In other cases, those altered cells may remain in small numbers or perhaps even disappear.

It’s not yet clear to what extent such pockets of altered cells may put people at greater risk for developing cancer down the road. But the presence of these genetic mutations does have potentially important implications for early cancer detection. For instance, it may be difficult to distinguish mutations that are truly red flags for cancer from those that are harmless and part of a new idea of what’s “normal.”

To further explore such questions, it will be useful to study the evolution of normal mutations in healthy human tissues over time. It’s worth noting that so far, the researchers have only detected these mutations in large populations of cells. As the technology advances, it will be interesting to explore such questions at the higher resolution of single cells.

Getz’s team will continue to pursue such questions, in part via participation in the recently launched NIH Pre-Cancer Atlas. It is designed to explore and characterize pre-malignant human tumors comprehensively. While considerable progress has been made in studying cancer and other chronic diseases, it’s clear we still have much to learn about the origins and development of illness to build better tools for early detection and control.

Reference:

[1] RNA sequence analysis reveals macroscopic somatic clonal expansion across normal tissues. Yizhak K, Aguet F, Kim J, Hess JM, Kübler K, Grimsby J, Frazer R, Zhang H, Haradhvala NJ, Rosebrock D, Livitz D, Li X, Arich-Landkof E, Shoresh N, Stewart C, Segrè AV, Branton PA, Polak P, Ardlie KG, Getz G. Science. 2019 Jun 7;364(6444).

Links:

Genotype-Tissue Expression Program

The Cancer Genome Atlas (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Pre-Cancer Atlas (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Getz Lab (Broad Institute, Cambridge, MA)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Human Genome Research Institute; National Institute of Mental Health; National Cancer Institute; National Library of Medicine; National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke


Creative Minds: The Worm Tissue-ome Teaches Developmental Biology for Us All

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C. elegans

Caption: An adult Caenorhabditis elegans, 5 days
Credit: Coleen Murphy, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ

In the nearly 40 years since Nobel Prize-winning scientist Sydney Brenner proposed using a tiny, transparent soil worm called Caenorhabditis elegans as a model organism for biomedical research, C. elegans has become one of the most-studied organisms on the planet. Researchers have determined that C. elegans has exactly 959 cells, 302 of which are neurons. They have sequenced and annotated its genome, developed an impressive array of tools to study its DNA, and characterized the development of many of its tissues.

But what researchers still don’t know is exactly how all of these parts work together to coordinate this little worm’s response to changes in nutrition, environment, health status, and even the aging process. To learn more, 2015 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award winner Coleen Murphy of Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, has set out to analyze which genes are active, or transcribed, in each of the major tissues of adult C. elegans, building the framework for what’s been dubbed the C. elegans “tissue-ome.”


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