DNA Research Reduces Opioid Dependence


One in five adults in America suffers from chronic pain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Yet modern medicine is far from solving the riddle of eliminating such pain, especially in the lower back.

“By far, the two most commonly used drugs for back pain are opioids and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and they both may be associated with problems,” says John Licciardone, DO, MS, MBA, professor of family medicine and the Richards-Cohen Distinguished Chair in Clinical Research at the University of North Texas Health Science Center (UNTHSC). “Based on the data we collect, we can look at the genes that control how these drugs are metabolized and predict who is at the greatest risk for side effects.”

Dr. Licciardone is leading a statewide effort to collect data for the PRECISION Pain Research Registry: the initiative that allows researchers at UNTHSC to analyze the characteristics of the DNA of people who suffer chronic lower-back pain. The DNA-collection initiative went statewide in May 2019 and had 650 participants as of November 2019.

On one end of the patient spectrum are people who metabolize opioids, such as codeine, very quickly, which puts them at high risk for serious side effects, such as respiratory depression. At the other end are people who are poor codeine metabolizers and are unlikely to experience pain relief.

The goal will be to decipher which patients are likelier to respond to specific drugs, such as opioids.

“If doctors have access to that information, it could lead them to prescribe fewer opioids, which can improve outcomes and reduce addiction,” Dr. Licciardone says. “So we are studying how we can we use the DNA information we have to tailor a particular treatment to an individual patient. That’s really the essence of precision medicine.”

This article is part of the 2020 Higher Education Review Magazine.