Avenir Award in Genetics and Epigenetics of Substance Abuse

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 two Avenir award programs, one for HIV/AIDS and another on the genetics and epigenetics of substance use.

2021 Genetics or Epigenetics Research Awardees

Steve Oghumu, Ph.D.

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Steve Oghumu, Ph.D.

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.

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Qian Peng, Ph.D.

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.

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William Renthal, M.D., Ph.D.

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.

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Sandra Sanchez Roige, Ph.D.

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.

Past Awardees

2020 Genetics or Epigenetics Research Awardees

Drew Kiraly, M.D., Ph.D.

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Drew Kiraly, Ph.D.

Drew Kiraly, M.D., Ph.D., received his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. He next completed his residency in Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine where he was a two-year chief resident and was awarded an Outstanding Resident Award from the National Institutes of Mental Health among many other accolades. Drew performed his postdoctoral research in the laboratory of Dr. Eric Nestler. During this time, he was named as a Leon Levy Fellow in Neuroscience. Upon graduation from residency Drew was promoted to Assistant Professor of Psychiatry & Neuroscience as well as an Attending Physician in the Mount Sinai Hospital. Drew is currently the principal investigator of the Laboratory of Translational Psychiatry where the group utilizes translational models of substance use disorder to identify new potential therapeutic targets. The work in the lab focuses on behavioral and epigenetic effects of peripheral metabolites, immune factors, and gut-brain signaling in substance use disorder. 

Project: Targeting the Host Metabolome to Reverse Drug-Induced Epigenetic Changes: Appropriate regulation of gene expression is critical for normal adaptive behavioral responses and brain function, and this regulation is persistently disrupted in pathological substance use disorders. Our laboratory has found that prolonged use of drugs of abuse leads to alterations in cellular metabolite levels in the blood and brain. Importantly, many of these metabolites are key regulators of enzymes that can alter gene expression. These studies will identify how changes in metabolites and the enzymes they interact with can be targeted to alter behavioral and neurobiological response to drugs of abuse and have high potential to generate new research strategies for bench to bedside clinical translation.

Megan Matthews, Ph.D.

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Megan Matthews, Ph.D.

Megan Matthews, Ph.D., received her B.A. in Chemistry from Miami University and her Ph.D. from Penn State University under Marty Bollinger and Carsten Krebs. Her Ph.D. work led to an understanding for how iron oxygenases suppress hydroxylation to allow for halogenation and other outcomes important in natural product biosynthesis. Upon graduation, she performed postdoctoral studies at Scripps Research in the chemical biology laboratory of Ben Cravatt as a Helen Hay Whitney Fellow. Matthews investigated the prevalence of undiscovered protein-bound electrophiles and the (dys)functions that the unknown electrophiles impart, uncovering evidence for their involvement in cancer and diseases of the central nervous system. Her program is tracking down these and a host of other leads, which has led to new pharmacological tools for drug discovery for both new and known genetic and epigenetic drug targets. 

Project: MAOI-Inspired Activity Probes to Translate Epigenetics and Genetics into Drugs: Tools to identify genetic and epigenetic variation provide powerful insight into the molecular processes that cause addiction and other diseases of the central nervous system (CNS). However, translating genetic- and epigenetic-level insights into therapies that treat substance abuse remains a major challenge. We are exploiting the chemistry of pharmacophores found in psychoactive drugs to study the impact of genetic variants and epigenetic modifications in addiction. We expect that by measuring changes in protein activity in mouse models of chronic drug exposure using electronic nicotine delivery systems, we will identify novel targets for developing therapeutics to treat addiction and other psychiatric disorders. 

Stephanie Sillivan, Ph.D.

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Stephanie Sillivan, Ph.D.

Stephanie Sillivan, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at Temple University in the Lewis Katz School of Medicine. She received her Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University and completed postdoctoral research at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and The Scripps Research Institute. During her training, Dr. Sillivan studied epigenetic and transcriptional regulation associated with post traumatic stress disorder symptomology and drug exposure in preclinical animal models. She joined the faculty at Temple in 2018 where she has an appointment in the Center for Substance Abuse Research. Dr. Sillivan’s laboratory investigates the neurobiology of addiction by examining the contribution of noncoding RNA mechanisms to drug-seeking behavior using rodent models of opioid self-administration. 

Project: Circular RNA Signaling in Opioid Seeking Phenotypes: During the Avenir award period, Dr. Sillivan will extend her studies to explore the novel role of circular RNAs in opioid-seeking phenotypes. These single-stranded transcriptional splice products can regulate many cellular processes at the epigenetic, transcriptional, and translational level and their biogenesis may impact drug-seeking behavior. Uncovering the contribution of circular RNA signaling to mechanisms that sustain opioid seeking will provide critical insight into the neurobiology of perseverant drug-seeking phenotypes.

Lucas Sjulson, M.D., Ph.D.

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Dr. Luca Sjulson

Dr. Sjulson is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. His laboratory combines advanced electrophysiological and optical methods with novel transcriptomic approaches to investigate the roles that distinct neuronal subtypes play in drug addiction and reward-guided decision-making. He is also a practicing psychiatrist specializing in interventional and neurosurgical approaches to treating drug addiction and other forms of severe, persistent mental illness. He is a graduate of the Cornell/Rockefeller/Sloan-Kettering Tri-Institutional MD/PhD Program and has completed psychiatry residency at NYU/Bellevue and postdoctoral research training at the NYU Langone Neuroscience Institute.

Project: Uncovering Links between Neuronal Transcriptomic and Functional Profiles in Opioid Addiction:  One of the key unsolved problems in opioid addiction is understanding the functional roles played by the numerous transcriptomically-defined neuronal subtypes in the nucleus accumbens. In this project, we take first steps toward bridging this gap using a combination of electrophysiology, optical methods, and in situ transcriptomic profiling to identify subpopulations of accumbens neurons that respond during distinct phases of opioid self-administration. We expect this project will open new lines of exploration in substance use disorders and contribute broadly to understanding the relationship between neuronal gene regulation and functional roles in opioid addiction, which may identify new therapeutic targets.

Luis M. Tuesta, Ph.D.

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Luis Tuesta, Ph.D.

Luis M. Tuesta, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. He completed his graduate training at The Scripps Research Institute in the laboratory of Dr. Paul Kenny, where he studied the role of the neuropeptide, GLP-1, in driving nicotine satiety (Nature Neuroscience 2017). He then completed his postdoctoral training in the laboratory of Dr. Yi Zhang at Boston Children’s Hospital / Harvard Medical School. During this time he worked on developing cell type-specific epigenetic profiling tools to better understand gene expression programs in dopamine neurons (Nature Communications 2019). Drawing from his training, Dr. Tuesta’s lab now studies how drug-induced epigenetic changes can affect behavioral outcomes in addiction. 

Project: Microglia and Epigenetic Regulation in Opioid Addiction: Dr. Tuesta’s Avenir project proposes to study how chromatin remodeling regulates microglial activity and neuroinflammation during opioid-taking and craving, ultimately leading to relapse. Currently, there are no FDA-approved therapeutics available for relapse prevention in opioid use disorder. Therefore, the ultimate goal of this project is that by looking beyond the neuron, new therapeutic targets can be uncovered to achieve long-term abstinence and to prevent relapse to opioid-seeking.   

2019 Genetics or Epigenetics Research Awardees

Erin S. Calipari, Ph.D.

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Erin S. Calipari, Ph.D.

Vanderbilt University

Project: Making and breaking opioid memories to prevent relapse

More about Dr. Calipari

 

Shuo Chen, Ph.D.

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Shuo Chen, Ph.D.

University of Maryland, Baltimore

Project: A Multivariate Mediation and Deep Learning Framework for Genome-Connectome -Substance Use Research

More about Dr. Chen

2018 Genetics or Epigenetics Research Awardees

Mathieu Wimmer, Ph.D. 

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Mathieu Wimmer, Ph.D.

Temple University of the Commonwealth

Project: Unraveling epigenetic mechanisms of opioid addiction susceptibility using multigenerational animal models

More about Dr. Wimmer
 

Kathryn D. Meyer, Ph.D.

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Kathryn D. Meyer, Ph.D.

Duke University 

Project: Epitranscriptomic Regulation of Synaptic Responses to Drugs of Abuse

More about Dr. Meyer

 

Andreas Robert Pfenning, Ph.D.

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Andreas Robert Pfenning, Ph.D.

Carnegie-Mellon University 

Project: Interpreting the regulatory mechanisms underlying the predisposition to substance use disorders 

More about Dr. Pfenning
 

Christina Woo, Ph.D.

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Christina Woo, Ph.D.

Harvard University

Project: Precision pharmacology of the opioids

More about Dr. Woo

 

Jian Feng, Ph.D.

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Jian Feng, Ph.D.

Florida State University

Project: Three Dimensional Chromosome Architecture in Drug Addiction

More about Dr. Feng

2017 Genetics or Epigenetics Research Awardees

Rohan Hugh Craig Palmer, Ph.D.

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Rohan Palmer, Ph.D.

Emory University

Project: The Kinship Risk Score: An Integrative Tool to Prioritize Alcohol and Drug-Addiction Related Genes for Enhanced Risk Prediction

Michael A. Crickmore, Ph.D.

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Michael Crickmore, Ph.D.

Boston Children’s Hospital

Project: Mating behavior in Drosophila as a model for understanding and controlling aberrant dopaminergic responses

More about Dr. Crickmore
 

Jason Ernst, Ph.D.

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Jason Ernst

University of California, Los Angeles

Project: Deciphering the Relationship between Substance Use and Psychiatric Disorders from Whole Genome Sequencing Data

More about Dr. Ernst
 

Elizabeth A. Heller, Ph.D.

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Elizabeth A Heller, Ph.D.

University of Pennsylvania

Project: Chromatin-mediated alternative splicing in reward pathophysiology

More about Dr. Heller

 

Albert Keung, Ph.D.

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Albert J. Keung

North Carolina State University, Raleigh

Project: The Epigenome in Substance Abuse Disorders: Engineering New Tools to Dissect Function from Form

More about Dr. Keung
 

Olivia Gabrielle Corradin, Ph.D.

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Olivia Corridin

Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Project: Delineating genetic risk to addiction via analysis of 3D chromatin architecture

More about Dr. Corradin
 

2016 Genetics or Epigenetics Research Awardees

Ian S. Maze

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Photo of Ian S. Maze

Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

Ian Maze, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Departments of Neuroscience and Pharmacological Sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) in New York City. Dr. Maze received his Ph.D. in Neuroscience from ISMMS in 2010, conducted postdoctoral training in the Laboratory of Chromatin Biology and Epigenetics at the Rockefeller University, and joined the ISMMS faculty in 2014. He has garnered international recognition for his work on neuroepigenetic mechanisms of drug abuse and depression, including the discovery that drug- and stress-mediated disruptions of repressive chromatin states in ventral striatum result in increased susceptibilities to both addiction and depression related phenotypes. His lab continues to investigate chromatin regulatory phenomena contributing to drug abuse, with an emphasis on relationships between a novel set of histone modifications recently discovered in the Maze laboratory and aberrant neuronal plasticity contributing to addictive-like behaviors.

Francesca Telese

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Photo of Francesca Telese

University of California, San Diego School of Medicine

Francesca Telese, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).  Dr. Telese received her Ph.D. at the University of Naples “Federico II,” conducted her postdoctoral research at the Department of Medicine at UCSD, and joined the faculty of the School of Medicine at UCSD in 2016. She has garnered international recognition for her work on the epigenetic signatures linked to learning and memory, including those regulated by the Reelin signaling pathway. Her current program of research focuses on the relationship between epigenetic signatures in specific neuronal subtypes and different brain behaviors, with an emphasis on the molecular effects of cannabis abuse.

2015 Genetics or Epigenetics Research Awardees

Jeremy J. Day, Ph.D.

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Photo of Jeremy J. Day, Ph.D.

University of Alabama at Birmingham

Jeremy Day, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Neurobiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dr. Day received his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina, conducted postdoctoral training at UAB, and joined the faculty at UAB in 2014. He has garnered recognition for his work in the epigenetic basis of memory formation, including the discovery that the formation of reward-related memories requires epigenetic mechanisms such as DNA methylation. His lab continues to explore the relationship between epigenetic states and neuronal function, with an emphasis on the brain circuits that regulate motivated behavior.

Christie D. Fowler, Ph.D.

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Photo of Christie D. Fowler, Ph.D.

University of California, Irvine

Christie D. Fowler, PhD is an assistant professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at the University of California, Irvine. Dr. Fowler received her PhD from Florida State University, conducted postdoctoral research at The Scripps Research Institute, and joined the faculty at UC Irvine in 2014. She has garnered international recognition based on her findings that nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in the medial habenula-interpeduncular pathway control the aversive properties of nicotine and thereby limit consumption of the drug. Her current research seeks to elucidate the extracellular epigenetic signaling mechanisms mediating nicotine aversion and reinforcement, with an underlying goal of identifying novel targets for therapeutic development.