Mustafa al’Absi, Ph.D., and a team of national collaborators have received a four-year grant of $1.6 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for their research, “AutoSense: Quantifying Exposures to Addictive Substances and Psychosocial Stress.” al’Absi is a professor and founding director of Duluth Medical Research Institute at the University of Minnesota Medical School–Duluth Campus.
The project is among the first of 45 funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as part of the Genes, Environment and Health Initiative (GEI). al’Absi’s study falls under the Exposure Biology Program coordinated primarily by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in partnership with the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), all of which are part of NIH. The Exposure Biology Program supports interdisciplinary teams of basic scientists, bioengineers, physician-scientists and others working toward a variety of goals, including developing environmental sensors for measuring toxins, dietary intake, physical activity, psychosocial stress and addictive substances.
“What we are doing with this research is unique and innovative, particularly because we are moving the research out of the laboratory and into the real world, al’Absi commented. “Success with this research could lead to important improvements in how people at high risk for medical or psychosocial problems are monitored and treated.”
The goal of al’Absi’s research is to quantify the relationship between stress and stress-related illnesses, including addiction. al’Absi will work in collaboration with investigators at the University of Memphis, Ohio State University and SpectRx, a Georgia biotech company. The clinical and human testing will occur at the Medical School–Duluth Campus. al’Absi will be assisted by Ruth Westra, D.O., and Sharon Allen, M.D., Ph.D., who will coordinate the medical monitoring in Duluth and Minneapolis, and Lorentz E. Wittmers Jr. M.D., Ph.D., who will assist in physiological testing.
Test participants would be connected to portable wireless sensors and data would be transmitted to a data repository. First steps in the research will involve assembling the biochemistry and software technology and testing them in a controlled laboratory setting with healthy people as subjects. Once scientists are certain the technology performs as expected, they hope to launch future studies to measure how the heart, blood vessels and blood chemistry are reacting 24 hours a day to real-world living situations.
Commenting about the body of proposals funded by the NIH as part of the Genes, Environment and Health Initiative, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said, "This is groundbreaking research in understanding the complex factors that contribute to health and disease. Researchers have long known that our genes, our environmental exposures and our own behavioral choices all have an influence on our health. This new initiative will use innovative genomic tools as well as new instruments for measuring environmental factors — from diet and physical activity to stress and substance addiction — in order to begin sorting out how these different factors affect a person's risk for a number of health conditions."