Professor Albert Keung is the recipient of an Avenir Award from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) within the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Avenir, the French word for ‘future,’ was selected as the name of this major award, as it provides $2.2 million over five years to “early stage investigators proposing highly innovative studies.” Annually, it funds between 2-6 researchers in the areas of genetics and epigenetics of substance abuse disorders.
Avenir Awardees often have backgrounds outside the area of addiction research and bring novel approaches to tackle the growing problem of substance abuse. Dr. Keung’s award, titled “The Epigenome in Substance Abuse Disorders: Engineering New Tools to Dissect Function from Form,” is representative of this approach.
Dr. Keung hopes to leverage the Award’s flexibility to pursue new approaches to make an impact on our understanding of the fundamental mechanisms underlying addiction, as well as provide stem cell and molecular tools that can be used to isolate new therapeutics. He’ll apply two distinct engineering approaches to better understand the molecular basis of addiction.
The first part of the research efforts will use human stem cells to create neurons in a dish to establish patient-specific models of the brain’s reward circuitry that’s key to substance abuse disorders. This approach has the advantage of enabling high throughput studies of the relationships between patient types and probable addiction, as the experimental models can be quickly grown in petri dishes.
The second research approach addresses the epigenome. Biological information and disease origins are found not just in the sequence of the genome, but also in the chemical modifications of the genome, or the epigenome. Existing methods can measure, but not perturb, these modifications.
The Keung group is engineering proteins that can manipulate the epigenome, with the hopes of both identifying molecular epigenomic mechanisms underlying addiction, as well as potential therapeutic targets.
A description of Albert’s cohort of Award winners can be found here (click on “2017 Winners”).