UC College of Medicine forms Center for Addiction Research

Center will support science related to substance use disorders, find new treatments

An estimated 23 million adults in the United States have struggled with unhealthy drug use, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“Addiction is a chronic, recurring medical disorder but many suffering from addiction continue to be stigmatized,” says Theresa Winhusen, PhD, the Donald C. Harrison Endowed Chair in Medicine and vice chair for addiction sciences in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at the University of Cincinnati. “Research to better understand the causes and consequences of substance use and addiction and to improve treatment outcomes for those struggling with addiction is needed.”

To help meet this need, the UC College of Medicine has established the Center for Addiction Research (CAR) to expand the university’s scope as a national leader in addiction science.

“As part of the center, our investigators will continue their important research on opioid, stimulant, cannabis, tobacco and alcohol use disorders,” says Winhusen, who is director of the center. “These researchers are leaders in their fields. The center will support cross-disciplinary collaborations to accelerate scientific progress.”

Establishing focus and forming new collaborations

portrait of Theresa Winhusen

Theresa Winhusen, PhD, director for the center, says the focus will be on three areas of addiction research: treatment development and testing, perinatal addiction and developmental consequences and population health and health services. Photo credit/Colleen Kelley/UC Creative + Brand

Winhusen says the center will focus on three areas of addiction research: treatment development and testing, perinatal addiction and developmental consequences and population health and health services. These “cores” will be led by Andrew Norman, PhD, professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Systems Physiology; Stephanie Merhar, MD, research associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics and a physician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center; and Michael Lyons, MD, associate professor of emergency medicine at UC.

“The talents of these leaders will help us establish collaborative relationships within these three areas of investigation — not only across UC departments, colleges and centers, including those at Cincinnati Children’s, but also with community and governmental partners, other academic institutions and industry,” she says.

The center includes 27 faculty members who have all been involved in addiction research and have addiction-related publications in peer-reviewed journals. Currently, CAR investigators have over $22 million in research support from both federal and private sources, but Winhusen hopes that the collaborative nature of the center will lead to additional funding and the creation of a pilot funding mechanism to help researchers get the ball rolling on innovative studies.

The Center for Addiction Research will continue to make substantial contributions to addiction science and greatly impact the lives of people who are battling addictions.

Andrew T. Filak Jr., MD Dean of the UC College of Medicine

“The College of Medicine has made important contributions in addiction basic research and clinical trials. With the leadership of Dr. Winhusen, who is nationally respected in this field, and the important collaborations that will grow from these efforts, I expect the Center for Addiction Research will continue to make an even more substantial contribution to addiction science and greatly impact the lives of people who are battling addictions,” says Andrew T. Filak Jr., MD, senior vice president for health affairs and Christian R. Holmes Professor and Dean of the UC College of Medicine.

Winhusen adds that the pandemic has exacerbated the existing addiction problems in this country.

“We’re seeing a significant escalation in opioid overdose deaths in Ohio,” she says. “Most of America is aware that we had an opioid crisis before this pandemic, but it’s gotten worse. A goal of the CAR is to disseminate our research findings to improve public health. Consistent with this goal, we are making an online, personally tailored opioid overdose education tool available at no charge through the CAR website.” The tool was developed by CAR faculty with pilot funding from the UC College of Medicine and a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Integrating the Opioid Task Force

group discussion during symposium

The UC/UC Health Opioid Task Force will be integrated into the center and the task force itself will disassemble. Pictured here is the Tri-State Opioid Symposium, hosted by the Task Force, in 2019. Photo credit/Colleen Kelley/UC Creative + Brand

As this new center is formed, the work of the UC/UC Health Opioid Task Force will be integrated and the task force itself will disassemble, Winhusen adds.

“The important work of the task force helped shape the creation of the CAR,” Winhusen says, noting the guidance of James L. Winkle College of Pharmacy Dean Neil MacKinnon, PhD, and Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience Chair Melissa DelBello, MD. Both served as co-leaders of the task force. 

“We made great strides in tackling this public health issue through clinical practice, education, research and community outreach,” says MacKinnon. “As the task force transitions to this new center, I am confident that UC and UC Health will continue to make a positive impact on drug addiction.”

The Center for Addiction Research is poised to change our understanding of the biology behind addiction, leading to alternative interventions and eventual cures.

Melanie Cushion, PhD Senior Associate Dean for Research at the UC College of Medicine

UC College of Medicine leadership is also enthusiastic about the impact a center like this will have on addiction.

“The Center for Addiction Research led by Dr. Winhusen is poised to change our understanding of the biology behind addiction, leading to alternative interventions and eventual cures,” says Melanie Cushion, PhD, senior associate dean for research at the UC College of Medicine.

“We are proud that the College of Medicine has this unique center to serve the regional Cincinnati community,” adds Brett Kissela, MD, senior associate dean for clinical research at the UC College of Medicine.

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