Impact on Society
Alcoholism creates and perpetuates enormous human suffering and is caused by both environmental and genetic factors. The effects are felt by everyone in our society. Economic losses due to alcoholism and alcohol abuse is greater than that caused by cancer, AIDS, or heart disease. Lost productivity, the burden on the health care system, and other factors are estimated to cost $185 billion annually, and the emotional stress on family members and friends of the afflicted is incalculable. Alcohol and other drug use have been implicated as factors in this country's most serious and expensive problems, including family violence and HIV/AIDS.
Federal support for research on alcoholism is the lowest for any major public health problem. Research in this field has the potential to impact the lives of approximately 18 million alcoholics, alcohol abusers, and their family members - an estimated 126 million Americans.
Pathways to a Cure
Dramatic scientific advances over the past two decades have revolutionized our understanding of alcohol and drug abuse. Foremost among these developments is the clear understanding that alcohol and drug addictions are treatable diseases of the brain.
The Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research was created to research these neurological disorders. Established in 1999 as an organized research unit of the College of Natural Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin, the Center was made possible by a generous gift from M. June and J. Virgil Waggoner and matching university funds.
Experienced investigators from the Colleges of Natural Sciences, Liberal Arts and Pharmacy explore alcohol and drug actions at the molecular, electrophysiological and behavioral levels. Collaborations with scientists who are not currently alcohol researchers allow the development of new tools and research approaches not possible in any one laboratory.
Gene expression profiling in brain is key to understanding addiction. New gene sequencing technology (NexGen RNA-Seq), along with oligonucleotide microarrays (gene chips), allow us to measure changes in the activity or expression of thousands of genes. Members use this rapidly evolving technology to determine gene expression changes in human alcoholics and in animal models of addiction.
To prevent or reverse the process of addiction, investigators research the molecular targets responsible for drug actions on brain cells. Center researchers examine potential targets in test tube assays as well as in experimental animals with genetic changes in key molecules. This information will be useful in designing novel therapeutic approaches to addiction.
The Food and Drug Administration has approved the drugs disulfiram, naltrexone and acamprosate in the treatment of alcohol dependence, but none of these medications has shown strong, consistent effects in clinical trials. Given the need for more effective treatments, the center uses emerging research in alcohol neurobiology to rationally identify new candidates for drug development.
Training Future Scientists
Progress in alcohol and addiction research requires better education and focused training of future scientists. Members are committed to this endeavor, developing new courses in addiction biology for undergraduate and graduate students. Additionally, the university has designated endowment funds to train graduate students in this research field. In the long run, this may have the greatest impact of all of our programs.