UBC researchers explore use of nanotechnology to predict risk of opioid addiction

Nanotechnology could help detect whether a person is at a higher risk of becoming addicted to opioid painkillers, according to a research team that includes scientists from the University of British Columbia.

UBC Okanagan, along with Harvard Medical School and the University of Texas, is exploring ways to identify risk of addiction based on specific markers in a person's microbiome, so doctors can be made aware before they write a prescription.

The research was recently published in the journal ACS Chemical Neuroscience.

"Our aim is to help screen patients and predict the likelihood of opioid addiction and dependency in individuals," said Negin Kazemian, a member of the research team at UBC Okanagan.

Technology for better testing

Nanotechnology, which measures things on a very small scale, can detect proteins in a patient's blood plasma that might make them physiologically predisposed to addiction because of how drugs are metabolized by their body.

"Once we can actually draw some blood or use some bodily fluids such as urine or saliva, we can look at the microbiota and see what are the bio-markers in our blood, what are these microbiota leading to, how are they affecting protein," Kazemian explained.

"We can compare individuals in the population ... and see how do we vary and can we actually use these microbiota to predict who is going to become addicted."

The precision of the technology can also be used to monitor neurotransmitters in the brain and to conduct more sensitive drug testing.

Nanotechnology hasn't been used in this way before, Kazemian told Stephen Quinn, host of CBC's The Early Edition.

"They have widespread applications but their potential in regards to opioid addiction haven't really been explored," she said.

More than 1,420 people died of illicit-drug overdoses in B.C. last year, driving home the urgency for new ways to combat the epidemic.

The research is still in its initial stages and a screening test for doctors would take several more years to develop, Kazemian said, but there is a growing need to identify patients at a higher risk of addiction to opioids before they are prescribed.

"Family history is always taken into account but, other than than that, there are no other works in place right now [for screening]," she said.

With files from The Early Edition

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