Understanding Opioid Use Disorder

The opioid crisis presents a public health emergency without clear solutions. One key to unraveling the problem is understanding not just the causes of addiction, but understanding the steps taken leading people toward addiction.

A new genetic study by a team of scientists at UC San Diego School of Medicine proposed a cost-effective approach for studying the genetic basis of opioid addiction — termed “opioid use disorder” in the study — in large population-based cohorts instead of clinical cohorts.

Published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, the study was led by Sandra Sanchez Roige, Ph.D., and Abraham Palmer, Ph.D.

Using data from more than 132,000 23andMe customers who consented to participate in research, the study is important because it focused on the opioid misuse that can lead to opioid use disorder. In past decades opioid addiction started with heroin, but in this new era more than 80 percent of opioid addiction begins with the use of a prescription pain reliever, according to the study.

So, for this study, the researchers performed a genome-wide association study looking simply at participants reporting that  they had ‘ever taken prescription painkillers not as prescribed.’ Essentially the researchers identified those in the first step toward from use to misuse of opioids, as a way to study the genetic underpinnings of the condition.

“Our results show that this single question captured a genetic signal that is correlated with signals from well-characterized cohorts that have been clinically diagnosed with (opioid use disorder.)”

The UC San Diego team discovered novel genomic regions that influenced using opiate drugs not as prescribed. They also identified strong genetic correlations with other substance use traits, including opioid use disorder.

Read the full study in Molecular Psychiatry.