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Yale Radiology and Psychiatry Researchers Join with Penn Medicine to Create a New Center to Study Opioid Use Disorders

September 13, 2019
by Jane E. Dee

Opioid use disorder has reached epidemic levels in the United States. Over the last two decades, opioid-related overdose deaths increased by more than 50 percent, with nearly 50,000 in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Researchers from Yale School of Medicine (YSM) and Penn Medicine, which comprises the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, have created a new center that focuses on neuroimaging to improve our understanding of opioid use disorders and find new treatments.

The newly created Penn PET Addiction Center of Excellence (Penn PACE) will be the first facility of its kind to use positron emission tomography (PET) imaging to investigate the neurobiological changes associated with opioid use disorder. The center is funded by a 5-year, $8.9 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.


Richard Carson, PhD, professor of radiology & biomedical imaging and of biomedical engineering at YSM and director of the Yale PET Center, will lead Yale’s effort.

“We are very happy to build this collaboration with our colleagues at Penn to focus on imaging in addiction,” Carson said. “This partnership takes advantage of the combined and complementary expertise at both universities to both develop new imaging technologies, including new PET radiopharmaceuticals, and to address important questions in an area of high clinical need.“

Co-investigators from Yale are Henry Huang, PhD, professor of radiology & biomedical imaging and co-director of the Yale PET Center, and Robert Malison, MD, professor of psychiatry and director of the Clinical Neuroscience Research Unit at YSM.

“The center is a unique collaboration between two of the country’s leaders in both addiction psychiatry and PET neuroimaging,” Malison said. “In particular, the collaboration will use state-of-the-art brain imaging methods to better understand genetic mechanisms underlying individual variability to opioid, including therapeutic opioid, response.”  

The Yale PET Center has developed several unique PET imaging agents for the kappa opioid receptor, said Huang. “It’s gratifying to see the use of these agents in opioid addiction research and contribute to the understanding of this disorder as well as to its prevention and treatment,” he said.

Henry Kranzler, MD, a professor of psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine and the director of Penn’s Center for Studies of Addiction (CSA), and Robert H. Mach, PhD, a professor of radiology and director of the PET Radiochemistry Program at Penn, are co-principal investigators of Penn PACE.

The center will conduct studies in select patients seeking treatment at the Connecticut Mental Health Center as well as at Penn’s CSA, the Kirkbride Center, and the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center in Philadelphia. 

Researchers will initially focus on opioid receptors in opioid sensitivity, addiction, and suicide, using Yale and Penn-developed PET radioligands that home in on receptors, and the role of oxidative stress and neuroinflammation. They’ll also look for the neural signature of genetic differences, which could enable the use of a precision medicine approach to diagnosing and treating patients, according to Penn Medicine.

Submitted by Jitendra Bhawnani on September 12, 2019