The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor is launching a five-year project backed by an $11.7 million federal grant to research whether genetic traits influence the development of addictive disorders. The initiative comes as Maine is in the throes of a drug-abuse epidemic linked to heroin and other opiates.

Substance abuse specialists hope that by studying specially raised laboratory mice they can uncover new ways to treat and prevent addiction. They also hope it will provide the scientific grounding to help shift societal attitudes toward seeing addiction as an illness, rather than as a personal moral failing.

“We don’t judge mice. So when I say I have a mouse with a genetic variation that influences how likely it is to take cocaine, we don’t think ‘That’s a bad mouse,’ ” said Elissa Chesler, the principal investigator of the grant.

The new Center for System Neurogenetics of Addiction will be funded with a five-year grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health. The center will combine experts on behavioral neuroscience from several major universities, computational biologists and geneticists. Their work will focus on evaluating advanced mouse populations with extremely high genetic and physiological variations to search for traits that predispose individuals to addiction, the laboratory said.

OF MICE AND MEN

Correlating traits like impulsivity, acute and sensitized drug responses, reward-seeking and adolescent nicotine exposure with mouse genomes will help build data sets that can be extended from mice to human beings.

“We can use those genetic differences to find out which genes – and, therefore, which gene products, like proteins – are influencing addictive disorders,” Chesler said. Those genes could make a mouse more likely to seek out or work extremely hard for drugs. Researchers then can ask if there are ways to enhance or decrease biological pathways to alleviate or interfere with addiction.

“Once we identify the biological mechanisms of risk- and drug-taking, we are in a much better position to ask if there are clinically useful drug targets or behavioral interventions,” she said.

The center is starting its research at the same time Maine and other parts of the United States are tackling an opioid addiction epidemic.

There were 272 drug overdoses in Maine in 2015, an increase of 31 percent over the previous year and the highest number on record. The death toll was driven by overdoses of heroin and fentanyl, a powerful painkiller often used as a heroin substitute.

In a Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram poll of 609 registered Maine voters, six in 10 said they knew someone who used heroin or abused prescription painkillers in the past five years. Substance abuse treatment centers repeatedly complain that demand for treatment is far outpacing supply, especially for uninsured patients.

LOOKING FOR ANSWERS

Substance abuse specialists have long believed genetics can be linked to addiction, but there hasn’t been scientific data to back it up, said Steve Cotreau, the program manager at Portland Recovery Community Center. The research could potentially open up entirely new treatment and prevention options, and mitigate negative public perceptions about addiction.

“It will go a long way to reduce the shame that truly, if you have an addiction, it is like cancer. You didn’t do anything wrong. If you are predisposed to it, you are predisposed to it,” he said.

Mark Publicker, an addiction specialist in Portland, said about 40 percent of addictions are directly related to genetic predisposition, just as some people are predisposed to illnesses like diabetes.

But there are still major questions about why and how genetics work that have defied easy answers, he added. The research at The Jackson Laboratory would “clearly contribute on how we think about treatment in the future,” he said.

“We should be able to decrease the development of addictive disorders by identifying the genetic traits that predispose a person to addiction, then strategize on how to mitigate those traits,” Publicker said.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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