UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry awarded $9.8 million NIH grant that could help curb opioid use

A map shows a distribution of nerves.

Study of jaw-joint sensory neurons aimed at creating safer pain treatment

The UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry has received a major five-year, $9.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to discover how sensory neurons in the jaw joint and mastication muscles influence and create pain, which could lead to safer drug alternatives to opioid painkillers while helping to curb addiction.

The grant is one of five nationally awarded recently by the Restoring Joint Health and Function to Reduce Pain (RE-JOIN) Consortium, billed as a NIH effort to speed scientific solutions to stem the national opioid public health crisis. The awards are funded by the Helping to End Addiction Long-term® Initiative, or NIH HEAL Initiative®, and the NIH’s National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), which is administering the grants.

Joint and muscle pain are often cited as contributing factors to opioid overuse disorders.

Armen Akopian, PhD

“This effort is the basis for eventually developing drugs to replace opioids, so that when someone goes to the dentist with severe jaw joint and facial muscle pain, they will no longer have just one option to control it,” said Armen Akopian, PhD, professor of endodontics at the UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry, and principal investigator and project leader of the school’s RE-JOIN grant. “It’s an aim to create alternative painkillers.”

The original grant approval contributed to a record annual total of $35 million in research grant funding for the School of Dentistry secured in fiscal year 2022. Overall, UT Health San Antonio is the largest research institution in South Texas.

The team led by Akopian, a 27-year veteran of pain research, will create 3-D maps of the different types of sensory neurons found in the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) and mastication muscle, better known as the jaw joint structures. In so doing, they will seek to better understand how nerves are distributed, or innervated, throughout the different tissues of the joint.

That information, in turn, is expected to be used to develop novel, more precise therapies for reducing joint pain and deterioration – as well as restore healthy joints. And with that, help address a broader health goal.

“We can potentially reduce the burden of opioid dependency and eventually help bring an end to the opioid epidemic,” said Lindsey A. Criswell, MD, MPH, DSc, the director of NIAMS, in a letter announcing the five grant awards.

The award to UT Health San Antonio is one of two focusing on the TMJ, which Criswell calls one of the most understudied joints in the body. The other three grants are directed toward the knee, one of the body’s most stressed joints.

“All of these projects will use cutting-edge technologies, unique methodologies, and a broad array of animal models and human samples to help develop the 3-D innervation maps, which in turn may serve as a blueprint for future research on the innervation of other joints,” Criswell said.

“There will also be a focus on understanding how these types and patterns of sensory and sympathetic neuron networks in joints change with disease and aging, and how they differ between individuals depending on age, sex or disease,” she said. “Understanding and mapping the innervation of joints is only the first step towards developing targeted therapies that can help reduce and potentially eliminate opioid dependency.”

Other investigators on Akopian’s team for the grant include Mario Danilo Boada Donoso, PhD, assistant professor of anesthesiology, Wake Forest University School of Medicine; Malin Ernberg, DDS, PhD, professor in clinical oral physiology, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden; and Lindsey Macpherson, PhD, assistant professor in neuroscience, developmental and regenerative biology, The University of Texas at San Antonio.


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