About the Awards
NIDA’s Avenir Awards provide grants to early-stage investigators who propose highly innovative studies. “Avenir” is the French word for “future”, and these awards represent NIDA’s commitment to supporting researchers who represent the future of addiction science. Awardees receive up to $300,000 per year for five years to support their projects. NIDA has three Avenir award programs, one for HIV/AIDS and another on the genetics and epigenetics of substance use and a third for chemistry and pharmacology of substance use.
2023 Genetics or Epigenetics Research Awardees
Dustin Baldridge, M.D., Ph.D.
Dustin Baldridge is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Genetics and Genomic Medicine at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. He is a board-certified pediatrician conducting full-time translational genomics research, and also serves as a co-investigator for the Washington University Model Organism Screening Center (wuMOSC) of the Undiagnosed Diseases Network (UDN). He has received numerous awards throughout his career, including a NHGRI K08 award and a Genius Prize from the Washington University ICTS Precision Medicine Symposium, and is a Fellow of the Cordell Institute for Policy in Medicine and Law. His team studies the genetic basis of rare Mendelian disorders, developing high-throughput assays and genomics techniques to experimentally characterize the effects of clinically observed genetic variants.
Project: High-Throughput Functional Genomics of Variants in Genes Linked to Substance Use Disorders: Although our understanding of the genetics of human substance use disorders has increased significantly over recent years, most of the genetic variants that are associated with substance use disorders have not been experimentally validated. Dr. Baldridge will use cutting-edge, high-throughput techniques to study thousands of noncoding and coding genetic variants associated with substance use disorder, determining which variants are functionally significant. His research will help link genetic variants to clinical consequence, contributing to our understanding of the molecular underpinnings of addiction and uncovering biological targets for future development of treatments.
Megan Fox, Ph.D.
Megan Fox is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine, and in the Department of Pharmacology at Penn State College of Medicine. She received her Ph.D. in Biological Chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2016, and completed her postdoc in 2020 at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. She has received numerous awards and accolades, including the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award, and serves as a reviewing editor for the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. Her research uses multidisciplinary approaches to explore circuit-specific transcriptional changes that drive opioid self-administration and relapse, towards the goal of identifying neural mechanisms that drive the development of substance use and stress disorders.
Project: Identifying multi-omic signatures of opioid use and relapse: Repeated opioid exposure results in long-lasting changes that promote relapse, but the exact cellular adaptations and circuit-level changes driving relapse are poorly understood. Dr. Fox will use a multi-level approach to explore and manipulate the neural activity, gene networks, and epigenetic regulators in a rodent model of opioid self-administration. Her project aims to understand how opioid use changes the brain and promotes relapse, identifying activity-dependent transcriptional and epigenetic changes that can be targeted by new treatments.
Janitza Montalvo-Ortiz, Ph.D.
Janitza Montalvo-Ortiz is an Assistant Professor at Yale School of Medicine in the Department of Psychiatry. She received her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Northwestern University in 2014, and completed a postdoc at Yale University with Dr. Joel Gelernter. Her lab uses computational approaches on big data sets to explore genetic and epigenetic mechanisms associated with neuropsychiatry disorders, including substance use disorders and trauma-related disorders. She is the recipient of numerous awards including the NARSAD Young Investigator Grant and the Faculty for Excellence and Diversity Initiative Award, and is a scholar in the NIDA Diversity Scholars Network Program and the All of Us Biomedical Researcher Program. She is the co-founder and co-leader of the Latin American Genomics Consortium (LAGC) and serves as the co-Chair of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium Substance Use Disorders Epigenetics Workgroup.
Project: Deciphering the single-nucleus genomic regulatory structure of opioid use disorder in the human brain: Epigenetic modifications have been linked to opioid use disorder, but the interplay between these modifications, specific genetic variations, and specific types of cells has yet to be refined. Dr. Montalvo-Ortiz’s project will jointly profile methylomics, hydroxymethylomics, 3D chromatin structure, and transcriptomics of opioid use disorder in single nuclei in postmortem brains from human donors. The overall goal of the project is to obtain a better understanding of the molecular underpinnings and cell diversity of opioid use disorder in humans, towards the goal of identifying molecular targets that could be used to develop new preventions and treatments.
2022 Genetics or Epigenetics Research Awardees
Alvin Dean Jeffery, Ph.D., RN
Alvin Jeffery is an Assistant Professor of Nursing and Biomedical Informatics at Vanderbilt University. He completed a Medical Informatics Post-Doctoral Fellowship with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Nashville, TN, and has a background in pediatric critical care nursing and staff education. He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the American Journal of Nursing’s Book of the Year award, the Emerging Nurse Leader award from the Alliance of Nursing Informatics, and the Betty Irene Moore Fellowship for Nurse Leaders and Innovators. He serves on the Board of Directors for the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses. His work focuses on the design, development, and evaluation of probability-based clinical decision support tools within nurses' cognitive and physical workflows.
Project: Framework to Accelerate Substance Use Disorder Genetic Studies through Customizable, EHR-Based Precision Phenotyping: Current methods of substance use disorder (SUD) phenotyping based on electronic health records (EHR) are imprecise and inaccurate. Dr. Jeffery’s project will build a SUD phenotyping framework using data from a broad range of EHR sources (including administrative billing codes, medication information, and unstructured text data), and will link SUD phenotypes with genetic data. This framework will allow researchers to explore the links between specific genetic variations and SUD phenotypes (such as severity, risk of relapse, and so on), allowing for the development of new prevention and treatment interventions.Image
Jamie Lo, M.D., MCR
Jamie Lo received her M.D. from Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) and completed her residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Utah. She subsequently pursued fellowship training in Maternal Fetal Medicine and a Masters in Clinical Research at OHSU. She is a physician scientist with a research focus on the effects of environmental exposure (particularly substance use) on reproductive health and offspring outcomes. Specifically, she studies the underlying mechanisms between maternal environmental factors and placental perfusion and fetal development. She has received numerous awards over her career, including a K12 HD000849 through the Reproductive Scientist Development Program, Council on Resident Education in Obstetrics and Gynecology (CREOG) National Faculty Award for Excellence in Resident Education, Silver Family Faculty Excellence and Innovation award, and the American Physiological Society APSselect award. Currently, she is an Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Maternal Fetal Medicine, at OHSU and in Reproductive and Developmental Sciences at the Oregon National Primate Research Center.
Project: Impact of maternal marijuana use on epigenetic regulation of offspring neurodevelopment: Marijuana use during pregnancy can have a profound effect on fetal development and later life outcomes, as THC can access and bind to receptors in the placenta and the fetal brain. Dr. Lo’s project will attempt to establish a mechanistic link between THC use during pregnancy and its impact on epigenetic regulation of neurodevelopment in offspring using novel, longitudinal in vivo imaging of placental and fetal epigenetic regulation and development, extensive postnatal assessment of infant cognition and behavior, and sophisticated tissue studies confirming the role of epigenetic modifications in the imaging and behavioral studies. Ultimately, this research could lead to a better understanding of how prenatal marijuana exposure alters epigenetic regulation and future health outcomes.Image
Justus Kebschull, Ph.D.
Justus Kebschull received his Ph.D. in Neuroscience at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where he developed DNA sequencing-based tools for brain mapping. In 2017 he joined Liqun Luo’s lab at Stanford University as a postdoctoral fellow, studying the evolution of the cerebellar nuclei. He was the recipient of the prestigious Larry Katz Memorial Lectureship and the Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Funds Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2018, and the Klingenstein-Simons Fellowship Award in Neuroscience in 2022. In 2021, he joined Johns Hopkins University as an Assistant Professor in the Biomedical Engineering Department. His lab leverages circuit neuroscience, high throughput neuroanatomical and spatial transcriptomic tools, and evolutionary biology to identify the fundamental principles that underlie the structure of the vertebrate brain and its control of behavior.
Project: Identifying epigenomics and connectomics of protracted opioid withdrawal and relapse using cellular barcoding: The chronic cycle of withdrawal and relapse is a major barrier to the treatment of opioid addiction, and few studies have investigated the interaction of changes in gene expression, epigenetics, and circuit connectivity after opioid exposure and withdrawal. Dr. Kebschull’s project will use his recently-developed class of brain mapping tools to simultaneously track changes in all three of these modalities at an unprecedented multi-omic resolution in rodents. By examining these changes, this project aims to understand the long-term circuit changes induced by opioid withdrawal and relapse, and seeks to identify conserved changes that may be candidate targets for treating addiction.Image
Zijun Wang, Ph.D.
Zijun Wang is an Assistant Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Kansas. She received her Ph.D. in pharmacology from Peking University and completed her fellowship at the State University of New York at Buffalo. She is the recipient of the NIH Mentored research Scientist Career Development Award, and the travel awardee of American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, and was invited to speak at a Society for Neuroscience Nanosymposium. Her research focuses on understanding how brain reward pathways are influenced by environmental factors such as stress and drug exposure, and how maladaptation in these pathways can lead to disease states.
Project: The role of DNA breaks and repairs in opioid addiction: DNA breaks and repairs have been linked to opioid use disorders. Dr. Wang’s project will explore this link by characterizing the changes in DNA damage and repair sites and the associated changes in chromatin accessibility and gene expression in specific types of neurons in the prefrontal cortex of mice that self-administered heroin. This study aims to uncover a novel mechanism for the epigenetic regulation of the transcriptional and behavioral mal-adaptations underlying opioid addiction, which will fundamentally advance the understanding of the neurobiology of drug addiction.
2021 Genetics or Epigenetics Research Awardees
Steve Oghumu, Ph.D.Image
Steve Oghumu received his Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology from Ohio State University, and went on to train as a postdoctoral Fellow at the OSU College of Dentistry, specializing on oral biology and oncology. His primary research interests are oral carcinogenesis and substance use disorders. He recently pioneered a novel approach to investigate the involvement of X-chromosome inactivation (XCI) and XCI-escape in responses of immune cells during infectious disease, and his lab is applying this cutting-edge technique to explore sex-associated disparities in substance use disorders in mice. He is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including a NIH/NIDCR T32 Fellowship Award, a FASTPATH Future Leader Award from the Ohio State University Department of Pathology, and an American Cancer Society Research Scholar award. He currently serves as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pathology at the Ohio State University.
Project: X chromosome inactivation in sex disparities to substance use disorder: Sex-based disparities are evident in substance use disorders, with females being more vulnerable to the initiation, escalation and withdrawal effects of substance abuse behavior than males, and these disparities are not fully explained by hormonal differences. Dr. Steve Oghumu’s work uses a novel technique he recently developed to explore the role of alleles that escape X-chromosome inactivation on addiction. This project will determine the effect of escape from X chromosome inactivation as an epigenetic mechanism on sex differences in addiction.
Qian Peng, Ph.D.Image
Qian Peng received her Ph.D. in Computer Science at the University of California, San Diego, focusing on algorithm development for mathematical problems that arose from comparative genomics and epigenomics. Her subsequent work, both as a post-doc at The Scripps Research Institute and the J. Craig Venter Institute and presently, has focused on translational human genetics. She has received numerous accolades and awards over the course of her career, including an NSF IGERT Fellowship, the Enoch Gordis Research Recognition Award from the Research Society of Alcoholism, and a NIDA-NIAAA Early Career Investigator Showcase Award. She is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Neuroscience at The Scripps Research Institute, where her lab employs integrated novel computational approaches to explore the complex genetic and epigenetic underpinnings of substance use disorders.
Project: Identifying specific genetic pathway interactions for drug use and abuse through integrative omics: Cannabis use disorders have been found to be highly heritable, are widespread in the U.S., and frequently co-occur with alcohol and other substance use disorders. Dr. Peng’s research uses existing data from large studies of individuals with cannabis and alcohol use disorders to develop a computational framework that will enable the exploration of the interactions of genetic and epigenetic factors in a disease-relevant tissue-specific context that affect an individual’s risk for drug abuse. The software developed through her research will be freely available to other researchers so as to further boost substance use disorder research findings.
William Renthal, M.D., Ph.D.Image
William Renthal, M.D., Ph.D. Dr. Renthal is an Assistant Professor of Neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. He completed his M.D., Ph.D., and neurology residency at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, where he trained with Dr. Eric Nestler, and fellowship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, where he trained with Dr. Michael Greenberg. Dr. Renthal’s laboratory [renthal.bwh.harvard.edu] studies the epigenomic mechanisms that define neuronal cell types and functional states related to chronic pain and opioid use disorder. He has published over 40 peer-reviewed articles, has recently received the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award in Medical Sciences and the American Academy of Neurology Harold Wolff-John Graham Pain Research Award, and was named a Fellow of the American Headache Society.
Project: Epigenomic labeling of cells that drive drug abuse behavior: Opioid use disorder causes persistent epigenomic changes in brain reward regions that contribute to drug seeking behavior, but we currently do not have a way to access these altered cells selectively. Leveraging recent advances in single-cell epigenomics, Dr. Renthal aims to develop a novel viral approach that will allow the specific targeting and control of cells altered in models of opioid use disorder. This research could enable the development of new therapeutic approaches for opioid use disorder.
Sandra Sanchez Roige, Ph.D.Image
Sandra Sanchez Roige received her Ph.D. from the University of Sussex, and completed her postdoctoral work at the University of Sussex and the University of California San Diego, where she worked with Dr. Abraham Palmer. Her research explores substance use disorder genetics and comorbid psychopathology, and she has published extensively in this field. She works on numerous multidisciplinary teams and international consortia, including PGC, psycheMERGE (where she serves as the SUD workgroup co-chair), and the Externalizing Consortium, and has worked in partnership with 23andMe to study large-scale genetic datasets. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Diego and in the Department of Medicine at Vanderbilt University. She has won multiple honors and awards, including the Harry June Award from the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology and the NARSAD Young Investigator Award from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation.
Project: Building Bridges to Allow Cross-species Translational genetics for the Study of Addiction: Human and model organism research has generated an enormous wealth of genetic and genomic data that can provide insights into the neurobiological mechanisms of addiction. Human GWAS (genome-wide association studies) have identified numerous genetic variants that contribute to substance use disorders, but it has been difficult to translate these variants to model organisms. Dr. Sanchez Roige’s work is aimed at developing a toolkit to allow the translation of polygenic signals of addiction risk between humans and rodents. Establishing this framework will allow researchers to follow up on genetic association results in humans with multi-omics investigations of molecular mechanisms in animal models, allowing us to obtain a better understanding of substance use disorders.