Professor Hickman and his team of students is ready to look at opiate overdosing and its impact on the body.

NIH Awards UCF Researcher $3.8 Million to Study Opiate Overdoses

By: Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala on

he National Institutes of Health (NIH) today announced that UCF will receive a $3.8 million milestone based grant to better understand how overdosing on opiates works, their impact on multiple organs and the effect of drugs used to treat overdoses, including potential toxicity of organs.

James Hickman, a professor at UCF’s NanoScience Technology Center, is the lead scientist on the proposal. He’s developed a human-on-a-chip in vitro system that mimics multiple human organs. The technology will allow him to conduct this work without harming patients or animals. He developed the system at UCF in collaboration with Michael Shuler at Cornell University. UCF has licensed the technology to Hesperos, a company Hickman co-founded and where he serves as chief scientist.

While many organizations are researching the impact of opiates, UCF’s team was selected because it can do it via this artificial human-on-a-chip multiple organ systems. The technology could help replace animal testing in the future by providing a platform to conduct pharmaceutical research with validated success, Hickman says.

The new funding comes from the NIH’s Helping to End Addiction Long-term Initiative or NIH HEAL. The initiative aims to improve treatments for chronic pain, curb the rates of opioid use disorder and overdose, and achieve long-term recovery from opioid addiction.

“We are grateful to have funding to support research in an area that represents such a large and growing need,” Hickman says. “Our interconnected human-on-a-chip system provides a non-invasive way to emulate the response of compounds among all ‘organ’ compartments, and to concurrently predict potential toxicity and efficacy of drugs, including opioids and opioid antagonists such as Narcan.”

UCF’s award is one of 375 grants across 41 states made by the National Institutes of Health in fiscal year 2019 to apply scientific solutions to reverse the national opioid crisis.

“It’s clear that a multi-pronged scientific approach is needed to reduce the risks of opioids, accelerate the development of effective non-opioid therapies for pain and provide more flexible and effective options for treating addiction to opioids,” says NIH Director Francis S. Collins, who launched the initiative in early 2018. “This unprecedented investment in the NIH HEAL Initiative demonstrates the commitment to reversing this devastating crisis.”

While many organizations are researching the impact of opiates, UCF’s team was selected because it can do it via this artificial human-on-a-chip multiple organ systems. The technology could help replace animal testing in the future by providing a platform to conduct pharmaceutical research with validated success, Hickman says.

Hickman’s work will provide insight into the impact of opiate overdoses and treatment drugs on the kidneys, heart, muscles, and liver as well as explore how these drugs impact the part of the brain that controls breathing which is effected during overdose situations. He will also look at the impact of Narcan — a drug to treat overdoses – on these same systems.

The NIH has also previously funded Hesperos to advance the human-on-a-chip technology. A major milestone was in 2018 when the National Center for Advancing Translational Science at the NIH awarded Hesperos a Phase IIb $4 million three-year Small Business Innovation Research grant to increase the capacity and automation of this novel synthetic organ system.

Hesperos provides pharmaceutical, government and nonprofit organizations contract research services utilizing the human-on-a-chip system for disease modeling and drug testing.

Hickman has multiple degrees from MIT and Pennsylvania State University. He has published over 100 peer reviewed papers, has been awarded 28 patents and has joint appointments at UCF in chemistry, engineering, and biomedical sciences. He runs the Hybrid Systems Lab at UCF, which studies the interface between biological and non-biological systems to construct next-generation systems for toxicology, drug discovery and basic biology research.

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