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Team of UTHSC Investigators Awarded $3.1 Million to Develop Unique Model for Nicotine Addiction Research

Dr. Hao Chen

Hao Chen, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology, and Robert W. Williams, PhD, professor and chair in the Department of Genetics, Genomics and Informatics at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC), have been awarded over $3.14 million in funding to establish an innovative, diverse research model, which will be used to define and test the mechanisms that contribute to the addiction-enhancing effects of the chemical menthol.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 40 million adults in the United States still smoke cigarettes, and roughly 4.7 million middle and high school students use at least one tobacco product, including e-cigarettes. Research shows approximately 25 percent of smokers prefer mentholated cigarettes, and clinical studies have shown that menthol facilitates initiation, enhances dependence, and makes quitting more difficult.

Dr. Robert Williams

“We have found that cigarettes with a menthol additive lead users to a higher nicotine intake,” said Dr. Chen. “To understand why, we have developed a diverse research model that mimics the genetic differences of humans. Our work is of particular importance for the African American population as data shows they predominatly smokes mentholated cigarettes over all other types.”

The pair’s novel animal research model consists of a large, highly-diversified panel that is open access and can be used by any investigator studying addiction. The model can also be used to test different treatments or in different environments.
With strong preliminary data, the pair hopes their new model will help them learn more about the relationship between menthol and nicotine, and its links to human nicotine addiction.

“By studying the behaviors and effects of nicotine levels in the brain, we will be able to evaluate menthol craving, relapse, motivation,” said Dr. Williams. “This work will help us to define high-impact genetic variations and molecular networks, and provide a predictive and expandable experimental framework to link genetic differences to critical aspects of nicotine addiction in humans.”

Dr. Chen and Williams’ co-investigators include Saunak Sen, PhD, of the UTHSC Department of Preventive Medicine, and Rachel F. Tyndale, PhD, of the University of Toronto. Their award entitled, “System Genetics of Menthol and Nicotine Addiction,” is being funded by the National Institutes of Health for five years.