Here are my answers to excellent questions posed by student journalist Catherine Marfin for her new article below.
What made you want to get involved in this research?
I lived with a family once where the father suffered from alcoholism. The wife and son were severely impacted by his disease. I saw no hope for them because there is no way to escape the clutches of alcohol addiction. I wanted to contribute to novel therapies for alcoholism.
Why the name Supermouse?
The worms that carry this mutation do not get drunk and suffer no ill effects during alcohol withdrawal. Isn’t that amazing? If we succeed in achieving these same amazing results in a mouse, this would represent something only seen in science fiction or comics.
How is this research unique from previous research?
Only a handful of molecules in the brain have been mutated to reduce alcohol behaviors. So far, they have only uncovered modest effects. One problem in all cases is that the introduced mutation perturbs basal physiology and behavior. This complicates interpretation of the alcohol experiments. By contrast, our mutation doesn’t alter the basal function of the BK channel. This rare situation raises the hope that we may be able to stop alcohol behaviors without negative consequences on basal behavior and physiology.
How will this research pave the way for new forms of addiction treatment?
We are most excited to help those suffering alcohol addiction overcome the terrible symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. This is what keeps people in the never ending cycle of drinking. If we can find a way to target the BK channel in a safe way, we may help addicts break this dangerous cycle.
Are there any ethical dilemmas in creating an animal or a drug that prevents someone from being affected by alcohol?
Scientists don’t know how many molecules in the brain are responsible for alcohol behaviors. Most scientists suspect that there are many ethanol targets. However, this idea has not been tested directly. The best way to determine if a single ethanol target is largely responsible for alcohol behaviors is to mutate it in an animal so that ethanol no longer has any effect. Then you can ask if ethanol still has an effect on behaviors. For instance, if we find that this mutation prevents Supermouse from having alcohol withdrawal symptoms, this will signal that future pharmaceuticals may target the BK channel to help people overcome addiction.
This research may ultimately lead to the discovery of a drug that prevents people from getting drunk. But the drug would likely take away euphoric and stress reducing aspects of drinking too. So I doubt it would be abused. In analogy, there are drugs that prevent opiates from having an effect, but these are not abused much because they do not cause euphoria.
If Supermouse is successful, what will be the next step in your research?
We want to find a pharmaceutical strategy to alter the BK channel in the same way as the Supermouse mutation. We are already working on this in parallel. But positive results with Supermouse would likely encourage other researchers and even pharmaceutical companies to attack this problem together to get an answer sooner.
How did the team come up with the idea to crowdfund for the project?
I teach an upper level neurogenetics class where UT students get worms drunk. They are always amazed to see the mutant worms stay sober; often they bring their friends into the lab to show them. Seeing firsthand an animal that cannot get drunk is amazing. Then you start to think about the implications for treating alcoholism. This is an amazing result and research project that needs to be shared with the public.
Most research projects cost hundreds of thousand dollars per year. However, generating Supermouse will only cost $12,000. We felt that it was important that Supermouse be born in Texas and be supported by the UT community. Rather than buy a 6-pack of beer this weekend, if only 1,600 UT students donated the same amount of money to Supermouse, we will be on our way to make another amazing scientific discovery.
What about this research excites you the most?
For my research, I usually study how neuronal molecules function using a simple worm model. This is our first foray using more traditional mouse model. I’m excited to see whether our worm research predicts results in mouse. If true, this would provide strong evidence that rapid research using cheap and convenient worms can overcome the expense and occasional ethical issues in mouse research.
Thank you for your support!