MaineHealth, UNE collaborate on research describing effects of opioids on bone formation

Composite image of four headshots: Karen Houseknecht, Katherine Motyl, Tamara King, and Deborah Barlow
From left: Karen Houseknecht, Ph.D.; Katherine Motyl, Ph.D.; Tamara King, Ph.D.; and Deborah Barlow, B.S.

A unique, interdisciplinary research partnership between the MaineHealth Institute for Research (MHIR) and the University of New England has culminated in the publication of a new research paper that describes advances in the correlation between opioid use and the suppression of bone formation.

Senior author Katherine Motyl, Ph.D., MHIR faculty scientist — along with her team of trainees, including UNE alum Audrie Langlais, B.S. ’18 (Biochemistry) — and UNE researchers Karen Houseknecht, Ph.D., associate provost for Research and Scholarship; Tamara King, Ph.D., professor of physiology; and Deborah Barlow, B.S., analytical chemist in the Houseknecht Lab, recently published their paper, “Sustained morphine delivery suppresses bone formation and alters metabolic and circulating miRNA profiles in male C57BL/6J mice,” in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research (JBMR) in late August.

The paper represents a trans-disciplinary and cross-institutional collaboration between UNE and MaineHealth, Maine’s largest hospital organization. The research study aims to identify mechanisms that inhibit bone formation, specifically the impact of opioids on bone-forming molecules called miRNAs, which play an important role in gene expression and bone formation.

According to the authors, the mechanisms of bone loss from opioids is important for improving management of the adverse effects of opioids on the skeleton. Further, recent studies have linked chronic opioid use to alterations in circulating miRNAs.

For their study, researchers treated male and female mice with either saline or morphine for 25 days. Following the completion of morphine treatment, they observed that males had a reduced rate of bone formation and decreases in specific miRNAs involved in that process. Through the study, the team was able to establish a model where morphine leads to a lower trabecular bone formation in males and identified potential mediating miRNAs.

“Understanding the sex-specific mechanisms of bone loss from opioids will be important for improving management of the adverse effects of opioids on the skeleton,” the researchers wrote.

"I’m so pleased to be part of this trans-institutional collaboration matching expertise in bone biology, bone pain, and molecular pharmacology to discover molecular mechanisms contributing to clinically observed increase in bone fractures with chronic consumption of opioid medications,” Houseknecht said. “This research is but one example of the ongoing strategic collaboration between the University of New England and MaineHealth, focusing on research and Innovation, medical education, and interprofessional clinical practice.”

The work also represents a distinct collaboration between UNE’s Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) for the Study of Pain and Sensory Function and the MHIR’s COBRE in Mesenchymal and Neural Regulation of Metabolic Networks, both programs of the National Institutes of Health.

“Dr. Houseknecht has been a steadfast mentor and collaborator for several years, and I am excited to continue our work together,” Motyl reflected. “Strong relationships between our institutions have proven to be critical for advancing scientific knowledge and fulfilling the mission of MaineHealth — working together so our communities are the healthiest in America.”