- College of Osteopathic Medicine
- » Clinical Skills & Simulation Center
- » Continuing Medical Education
- » Residency and Fellowship Programs
- » COM @ Cherokee Nation
- Graduate Programs
- » School of Allied Health
- » School of Biomedical Sciences
- » School of Health Care Administration
- » School of Forensic Sciences
- » Physician Assistant Program
- About Us
OSU-CHS professor says CRISPR is key to stopping opioid overdose deaths
June 18, 2020
TULSA— In the U.S., a person dies of an opioid overdose every 13 minutes— that’s more than 100 people a day who lose their lives to this epidemic. But a researcher at OSU Center for Health Sciences thinks there is way to stop the overdose deaths using the newest technology in genetic science, CRISPR.
Dr. Craig W. Stevens, professor of pharmacology at OSU-CHS, authored a recent scholarly paper in the Journal of Neuroscience Research that proposes altering opioid receptors in respiratory neurons utilizing CRISPR technology in order to prevent opioid overdose deaths.
“There are opioid receptors in all kinds of places in the brain including respiratory neurons. So when opioids hit those particular receptors on those particular neurons that control respiration they inhibit those neurons from firing,” Stevens said. “It’s the main effect that causes death because those respiratory neurons are what keep you breathing.”
Respiratory depression is when the lungs fail to exchange carbon dioxide, what we breath out, for oxygen, what we breath in, resulting in short shallow breathing.
“Once opioids decrease the breathing, then the organ systems become hypoxic, you can go into respiratory arrest, the brain doesn’t work to drive respiration, and the heart eventually stops beating. The real key and the real reason of opioid deaths start with respiratory depression,” he said.
Stevens earned his Ph.D. in Pharmacology from the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine studying opioid tolerance. Shortly after, he came to the Department of Pharmacology and Physiology at OSU-CHS where he has served as an assistant professor, professor and department chair.
“I’ve been in the opioid field for about 35 years. As an opioid pharmacologist, it’s always been my area of interest and expertise,” he said.
When the opioid epidemic ramped up across the state and across the country, Stevens joined the Coalition Against Prescription and Substance Abuse of Tulsa (CAPSAT) and served as the organization’s chair for several years.
“That made me more aware of the clinical situation,” he said. “The number of opioid overdose deaths has doubled since 2010 and it’s expected to double again in the next 10 years. In 2017 alone there were 47,000 deaths by opioid overdose. That’s just in one year.”
Medical professionals have tried using NARCAN in emergency situations and Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, but Stevens said it’s not enough.
“These approaches we’ve tried so far, while they’re helpful and I’m sure saved lives, they haven’t made a significant impact. Nothing we’ve instigated has really made a dent in the numbers,” he said.
Stevens wanted to bring his 30-plus years of knowledge of pharmacology and opioid receptors to help solve the problem of overdose deaths by using the most modern tools in the industry.
"CRISPR is the solution because right now it’s the only way to knock out specific genes— in this case, knock out the gene for the opioid receptor in respiratory neurons,” he said. “Think of CRISPR as a super targeted gene therapy."