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The lab of Greg Scherrer, PhD, associate professor in the UNC Department of Cell Biology and Physiology, investigates the precise ways in which opioids interact with brain mechanisms and then, armed with a better understanding of the underlying biology, the lab pursues new ways to block pain without causing significant side effects. A member of the UNC Neuroscience Center, Scherrer received three grants totaling more than $11 million to continue his work.

The National Institutes of Health’s Helping to End Addiction Long-term Initiative (NIH HEAL Initiative) is an aggressive, trans-agency effort to speed up scientific solutions to stem the national opioid public health crisis. Almost every NIH entity is accelerating research to address this public health emergency from all angles. As part of NIH HEAL, Scherrer’s lab received a $2.8-million, four-year grant to investigate pain relief mechanisms in the brain that play significant roles in chronic pain, a condition that affects about 100 million people in the United States alone.

“Our HEAL Initiative project will identify new pain relief targets within brain circuits, setting the stage for new medications to alleviate the emotional suffering of individuals without the addictive side effects associated with opioids,” said Scherrer, who also holds a joint faculty appointment in the UNC Department of Pharmacology.

The Scherrer lab also received a fourth R01 NIH grant – $7 million over five years – for an interdisciplinary project to generate and make publicly available an exceptional resource for the opioid research field: a comprehensive accounting of the various brain cell types that express each of the opioid receptors and peptides, as well as the cell-type-specific molecular changes that occur when these brain cells are exposed to opioids.

This project involves several investigators with outstanding expertise in the fields of single cell RNA sequencing and large-scale cell type characterization and circuit mapping; optical brain imaging as applied to the study of neural circuits; and neurobiology of opioids and the distribution and function of their receptors in addiction and pain circuits.

The Scherrer lab also received a Brain Research Foundation Scientific Innovations Award for $150,000 over two years to study the intersection of pain relief and addiction caused by opioid use.