UNE researcher to study complications from HIV drugs in opioid users

Ling Cao
Ling Cao

The drugs used to keep those affected with HIV alive and prevent the onset of AIDS have proven effective, but longer survival from HIV infection also means increased chances of suffering from HIV-associated complications. HIV infected individuals often suffer from loss of brain function and severe pain in their feet and hands caused by nerve damage. These symptoms are further complicated by the use and abuse of opioids and other substances. A researcher in the University of New England’s Center for Excellence in the Neurosciences has been awarded a federal grant to study potential treatments that could reduce these complications and enhance the quality of life for people with HIV.

The $185,413 National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) grant, awarded to Ling Cao, M.D., Ph.D., will help fund research on the therapeutic potential of interferon (IFN)-beta for HIV-associated pain and neurocognitive disorders in opioid users.

“The opioid abuse crisis and the effects of addiction are devastating communities in Maine and around the country. It is critical that we continue to support research that tests new and innovative therapies,” Senators Susan Collins and Angus King said in a joint statement. “By better understanding the science behind addiction, HIV, and neurocognitive disorders, we can help save lives and strengthen the health and safety of our communities.”

Cao will specifically look at two complications associated with HIV infection. The first is HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders (HAND), which affect individuals’ learning, memory and executive functions. The second is HIV-associated peripheral neuropathies (HIV DSP), which cause pain and weakness in the hands and feet due to nerve damage. These conditions only increase once people transition from HIV to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), and they get worse as people age. In addition, opioid and other substance abuse is associated with increased risk and severity of HAND and HIV DSP.

Cao’s study will test for mechanisms for effective treatment strategies for HAND and HIV DSP. Through further understanding of the interaction between opioids and HIV infection, the long-term goal of this study is to develop novel strategies to manage HIV-associated neurological complications in opioid-using HIV patients.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is administered by the National Institutes of Health, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). NIDA works to advance national scientific research on addiction and drug abuse.

To learn more about the University of New England’s Center for Excellence in the Neurosciences, visit www.une.edu/research/cen

To apply, visit www.une.edu/admissions

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