Concordia Pharmacy Professor Helps Teens Tackle the Opioid Crisis

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Dr. Chris Cunningham, Concordia Assistant Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences, talks with students who participated in the Advanced SMART Team camp that ended on Friday.
Dr. Chris Cunningham, Concordia Assistant Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences, talks with students who participated in the Advanced SMART Team camp that ended on Friday.

For some teens, summertime means a break from learning, but for the 10 Milwaukee-area high school students who participated in the Advanced SMART Team program at Concordia University Wisconsin, this summer has meant an opportunity to delve into the science behind the opioid epidemic.

On Friday, students wrapped up a six-week program that had them learning about the drugs that bind proteins in order to find or create new ways to address the opioid abuse crisis. Concordia Assistant Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences Dr. Chris Cunningham led the program.

“We have an immediate health crisis concern in our nation,” Cunningham said. “This program not only exposes students to that dire concern, it helps them become interested in math and sciences, as well drug discovery, and those are all very worthwhile goals in my mind.”

The program is part of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute’s (CTSI) 500 Stars Summer Internship Program. The CTSI 500 Stars Initiative is a 10-year strategic, comprehensive and community-focused effort that seeks to replenish and increase diversity in the translational science workforce.

The Concordia Advanced SMART Team program is also an extension of a Milwaukee School of Engineering program, called SMART (Students Modeling a Research Topic) Teams, where students learn about STEM fields, proteins and biology before “graduating” to the Concordia program. On Friday, teams from both programs will gather at the Medical College of Wisconsin to present their research findings.

One Concordia team will share its efforts to make more potent antagonists to help patients recover from an opioid overdose—similar to Narcan, only more powerful. Students from another team will share their efforts to make kappa receptors, which can act as antagonists or blockers, and could be useful for treating other widely abused drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine.

Abby Arnholt, of Cedarburg, and her team will present their efforts to develop a new class of delta opioid receptor antagonists that would prevent a person from becoming dependent on opioids in the first place. Such agents have been shown to block the rewarding effects of morphine in mice, though FDA-approved agents are lacking.

Arnholt says the group will send their research to the National Institute of Health Psychoactive Drug Screening Program (NIMH-PDSP), led by Dr. Bryan Roth at the University of North Carolina, to test their effectiveness. The results could play a role in altering mainstream medication administration.

“I have some pretty good molecules, so I think there will be some positive results,” Arnholt said. “Hopefully it will shed more light on the opioid epidemic and lead to more research so that we can have more non-addictive opioids.”