In 1999 the rampant crack-cocaine epidemic turned Richmond into the murder capital of the South. Fifteen years later, the city has dropped its former reputation, but cocaine and its addictive properties are still seeping into the city’s underground economy and its constituents’ bloodstreams.
In an attempt to combat the major public health problem of cocaine addiction, the National Institute on Drug Abuse awarded VCU a $6 million grant focused on battling the drug’s influence.
Professor and division chair of addiction psychiatry F. Gerard Moeller applied for the grant at VCU in collaboration with the University of Texas at Galveston’s medical branch.
Moeller said his research focuses on different behaviors generally associated with drug use, such as impulsivity, by using brain imaging and functional magnetic resonance imaging.
He described cocaine as a naturally occurring plant-derived substance that stimulates neurotransmitters and frequently causes addiction to the chemically induced euphoria the brain experiences.
“The use of cocaine has gone down a little bit over the last few years, but it continues to be a major public health issue and it continues to be one of the top illicit substances that leads people to go to the emergency room,” Moeller said. “And right now there is no FDA approved drug for cocaine use disorder, cocaine addiction.”
Moeller said cocaine also causes blood vessels to constrict, which can lead to heart attacks, strokes and high blood pressure.
With limited treatments, Moeller calls addiction a huge health problem that is more prevalent in urban areas. He said cocaine is imported from outside of the United States and is easily transported into Virginia because I-95 links the state to Miami, a huge port city for cocaine.
Moeller said the grant will include three separate projects. The first project will be a pre-clinical project where researchers will study rodents to observe how new medications affect and block cocaine in the animals.
“Then we’re taking those medications into human cocaine users to look at the safety of those medications,” Moeller said.
The last project will look at brain imaging and analyze humans who are addicted to the drug while completing tasks related to impulsivity.
“If the research goes the way we think it will then we’ll find a medication and a dose we can take out to the clinical trial to see if it actually helps people,” Moeller said. “If that’s the case then we can move the medication, which calls for FDA approval.”
Though there are no approved medications for cocaine addiction, there are therapies that are known to work.
“The medications are part of a comprehensive treatment program that includes other therapies, behavioral therapies, and group therapies like AA and NA,” Moeller said. “Medications alone are not as effective as medications combined with group therapies and other kinds of therapies.”
Another component of the grant will include an educational core led by pharmacology and toxicology department chair William Dewey.
“I was working in the pharmaceutical industry and realized the importance of medications for treating this disease,” Dewey said. “(I) wanted to help develop new medications to treat disease and addiction is clearly a disease.”
Dewey said he will be responsible for training people to conduct clinical trials and carry out the appropriate tests to help find new treatments for cocaine addiction. He said the grant provides an opportunity to increase their activity and to educate people particularly regarding cocaine abuse.
“It provides an educational component to people who are usually working this field so they can learn,” Dewey said. “It’s very important that we get new medication to treat addiction and we need to educate people how to test these drugs and come up with better medications.”