UT Health receives $9.8 million grant to fight opioid dependency

Starting with an in-depth look at the jaw, The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio hopes to target joint health and end opioid dependency through a $9.85 million federal research grant.

“This effort is the basis for eventually developing drugs to replace opioids, so that when someone goes to the dentist with severe jaw joint and facial muscle pain, they will no longer have just one option to control it,” Dr. Armen Akopian, professor of endodontics at the UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry, said in an announcement.

Akopian, principal investigator and project leader, has conducted research regarding pain for 27 years. He and his team will create 3D maps of the jaw — including sensory neurons found in the temporomandibular joint and mastication muscle. Through these maps, the hope is to better understand how nerves in this area are distributed and how that influences and creates pain.

With joint pain often linked to opioid overuse, the goal is to find safer drug alternatives. But this research can also help develop new therapies for treating joint pain, reducing deterioration and even restoring healthy joints.

This $9.85 million grant is the largest to date from the National Institutes of Health, and one of five awarded across the nation by the NIH as part of its Restoring Joint Health and Function to reduce Pain Consortium, or RE-JOIN. These awards are funded by the Helping to End Addiction Long-term Initiative, and the NIH’s National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, or NIAMS.

Two of the five grants will support studies focused on the temporomandibular joint, or TMJ, the announcement states. The other three grants are supporting research of the knee.

“All of these projects will use cutting-edge technologies, unique methodologies and a broad array of animal models and human samples to help develop the 3D innervation maps, which in turn may serve as a blueprint for future research on the innervation of other joints, said dr. Lindsey Criswell, director of NIAMS, in the announcement.

In fiscal 2022, the UT Health School of Dentistry in San Antonio secured a record-breaking $35 million in research grant funding, easily surpassing the $11 million to $14 million obtained over the three previous years.

“This record-breaking success and growth in research funding for the School of Dentistry is a result of the dedication of the faculty to be a top research institution and the emphasis on research and support from the administration,” Dr. Brij Singh, associate dean for research at the School of Dentistry and professor in its Department of Periodontics, said in an announcement.

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