What Genetic Markers Can Tell Us About Opioid Dependence

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An NPR and Ipsos poll reported today that, “One in three people have been personally affected either by knowing someone who has overdosed or someone with an opioid addiction.” Perhaps this is not surprising given the huge toll that the opioid epidemic has had across our country. For example, the CDC found that a record number of Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017 including 47,600 overdose deaths that involved opioids (67.8% of all drug overdose deaths).

Research suggests that genetic factors are a source of nearly half of the risk for developing opioid use disorder. Every genetic study requires a comparison of individuals affected by the disorder and an unaffected (control) group. Our previous work has found that individuals who have used opioids recreationally a limited number of times without developing opioid use disorder are a uniquely qualified control group for identifying genes that are protective against developing the disorder.

Prior studies have consistently found that a surprisingly large percentage of the general population reports having had a limited history of recreational opioid use. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health collects data that is representative of the general population to provide annual estimates of the prevalence of drug use and drug use disorders in the United States. In 2017 (the last year for which estimates are currently available), 4.4% of the population aged 12 and older reported having misused an opioid in the past year. Less than 1/5 of these individuals (0.8% of the population) were diagnosed with opioid use disorder in the past year by the study.

The Opioid Misuse Study has funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to conduct a case-control genetic study of opioid use disorder. We are currently enrolling adults (aged 18 and over) who have a limited history of recreational opioid use (60 or fewer times lifetime) and those with a history of opioid use dosorder as controls and cases for the project. Please contact us if you are interested in participating. We would also appreciate any suggestions for recruitment of individuals with a limited history of recreational opioid use!

Elliot C. Nelson, MD

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