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USD researchers working on breakthrough treatment for meth overdose

USD researchers working on breakthrough treatment for meth overdose

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USD methamphetamine research

Associate professor Rick Wang displays a 3D printer model of the nano particles he is working on to attempt to develope a medicine to intervene in cases of methamphetamine overdose Friday, Dec. 13, 2019, at the Sanford School of Medicine on the University of South Dakota campus.

VERMILLION, S.D. -- Rick Wang didn't set out to develop a treatment for methamphetamine overdoses. He's a chemist by training, not a physician. 

But meth is a thorny problem, and if a solution could be found at a South Dakota college, it'd require input from experts in more than one field. 

Wang and his team have been developing a nanoparticle "metal-organic super-container," which, on a molecular level, is able to sequester other small molecules. In this case, Wang engineered microscopic "super-containers" to target neurotransmitters -- chemicals in the brain. 

"I like to tell people to think of this as the molecular version of cups," said Wang, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of South Dakota. "They can hold other small molecules. Hold, and remove, sequester." 

USD methamphetamine research

Associate professor Rick Wang displays a 3D printer model of the nano particles he is working on to attempt to develope a medicine to intervene in cases of methamphetamine overdose Friday, Dec. 13, 2019, at the Sanford School of Medicine on the University of South Dakota campus.

Wang has been studying this type of molecule, which he says has many potential applications, for about nine years. His nanoparticles also show promise in remediating environmental pollutants through much the same principle as they could work in the body. 

The "metal" in Wang's metal-organic supercontainers, if you're wondering, are ions of cobalt, copper, nickel and zinc. 

The metal-organic supercontainers (or MOSC, for short) are a part of a newly emerged field of medicine called nanomedicine, which uses nanotechnology for the treatment of diseases. Nanomedicine is perhaps best-known as a new front in cancer treatment, though it has a variety of potential applications. 

When meth is used, the brain releases dopamine, serotonin, glutamate and monoamines, which are responsible for the "high." These neurotransmitters, which exist naturally in the brain, are released excessively when meth is used -- quantities that are far too large, potentially causing brain damage. 

USD methamphetamine research

Associate professor Rick Wang displays a 3D printer model of the nano particles he is working on to attempt to develope a medicine to intervene in cases of methamphetamine overdose Friday, Dec. 13, 2019, at the Sanford School of Medicine on the University of South Dakota campus.

"We need to have a right amount of the molecules, in the right places," Wang said. "What happens is, in a situation where you overdose with meth, in particular, that causes abnormal activity. In fact, there's a cascade of huge, gigantic amounts, release of neurotransmitters. Which, temporarily, gives you this feeling of high, but in medium-term, long-term, that causes damage, neurotoxicity." 

Wang's nanoparticle "cups" could grab onto the excess neurotransmitters and, hopefully, mitigate the problem. 

Meth is a powerful stimulant. Users suffering an overdose can face an array of problems: cardiovascular issues, including heart attacks, strokes, chest pain, arrhythmia, overly fast or slow heartbeat or cardiac arrest, and/or high or low blood pressure; difficult breathing; agitation; unusual mood swings; hallucinations; psychosis; paranoia; seizures; and hyperthermia (overheating). 

Though meth is responsible for fewer deaths than opioid drugs, patients suffering such overdoses are known for their sometimes-frantic behavior, and users can develop long-term problems with their physical and psychological health. An overdose on meth, Wang said, isn't as simple as an opioid overdose. 

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"A meth overdose involves more complicated physiological processes," he said. 

Currently there is no single treatment for meth overdose. Narcan (noloxone) has been used for years to reverse overdoses of heroin, fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone and related drugs, which can be fatal; its efficacy is well-known. But there is no such antidote in the case of meth, though researchers are trying. 

Wang's research on nanoparticles was, in its earlier days, not thought of as any kind of treatment for meth overdose. But, by chance, it caught the attention of Lisa McFadden, an assistant professor and researcher of basic biomedical sciences at USD. 

USD methamphetamine research

Associate professor Lisa McFadden, is shown in her lab Friday, Dec. 13, 2019, at the Sanford School of Medicine on the University of South Dakota campus. McFadden is working on a way to determine methamphetamine use in areas based on chemicals in the area's wastewater stream.

"He was talking with another researcher and I just happened to be there, and he was saying, 'Oh, it binds to all these different transmitters,'" McFadden said. "(And I thought), 'Wow, those are the transmitters released by meth. It would be fabulous if we could try to target that, so we could potentially reduce some of the toxic effects of the drug itself.'" 

So Wang and McFadden, and their small teams of graduate and post-doctoral students, began a collaboration through USD's Center for Brain and Behavior Research, which is part of the medical school. 

USD methamphetamine research

Associate professor Lisa McFadden, is shown with some of her research equipment Friday, Dec. 13, 2019, at the Sanford School of Medicine on the University of South Dakota campus. McFadden is working on a way to determine methamphetamine use in areas based on chemicals in the area's wastewater stream.

The nanoparticle treatment itself is nowhere near the clinical trials phase; in fact, it'll be a while before the researchers are entirely certain of how their treatment could be applied in a practical setting. 

"We have a bit of a long road to get there, but, I thought that it would be used for an overdose specifically," McFadden said. "Because it would be very fast-acting." 

They still haven't settled on a catchier name for the substance than metal-organic supercontainers, "which seems like a very long word," McFadden said. 

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