Kathryn A. Cunningham, Ph.D., serves as the Chauncey D. Leake Distinguished Professor of Pharmacology, the director of the UTMB Center for Addiction Research, and the vice chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology. Cunningham is known as a mentor and a world leader in cutting-edge research in neuropsychopharmacology. She has pioneered the investigation of complex interactions among behavior, neurobiology and drug abuse.
Cunningham took time out to answer our questions about her work and life.
Your research endeavors are very translational. Can you describe for us what “bench to bedside” means in terms of your research in addiction?
Alcohol and drug addiction are deadly disorders with prominent medical consequences for our society. We are conducting translational research to understand vulnerability to drug use and to apply this knowledge to create new preventative, diagnostic and treatment approaches for substance use disorders. Our research is conducted as a close interaction between basic and clinical scientists with the recognition that translational research is an iterative and dynamic process. In one example, we are focused on cocaine use disorder which afflicts an estimated 800,000 people in the U.S. alone.
Impulsivity, a trait that predisposes people to act quickly without regard to negative consequences, is prevalent in those addicted to cocaine and is associated with failures to stay abstinent. We have identified key mechanisms and brain circuits in preclinical and clinical models that drive impulsivity and vulnerability to cocaine use disorder and relapse. These findings suggest that, while some cortical brain regions show altered activity in cocaine users, other regions may compensate for cocaine-associated deficits in function. We are in the process of developing novel molecular neurotherapeutic approaches to normalize deficits in function and suppress relapse. This cross-disciplinary research involves cell biologists, preclinical and clinical scientists, defining a unique approach to “bench to bedside” research.
What do you hope your research accomplishes?
The knowledge we gain through forward (the molecular understanding of the disease process informs clinical research) and backward translational research (the human condition informs the preclinical studies) is focused on assuring that our research outcomes are relevant and applicable to patient populations and clinical practice. Our hope is to save lives and reduce the impact of drug abuse at all stages of the lifecycle. As we and others guide the discovery of new treatments for addiction by the knowledge of addiction biology, I believe that tomorrow holds the promise of incorporating personalized medicine and integrated behavioral and medication support for recovery from addictive disorders. Importantly, these advances will be best employed within improved access and delivery of care for addiction and related health concerns, an outcome that can be advanced by routinely screening patients to prevent initiation and escalation of drug use.
How did you become interested in the field of drug addiction research?
I have experienced the impact of alcohol and drug abuse first hand in many different ways. Attending college, I was fascinated by the impact of recreational drugs on the brain and how these small chemical molecules, such as hallucinogens, could produce such profound effects. I have lost family members and friends to cancer linked to smoking and experienced the difficulties of locating effective therapeutic approaches for those addicted to alcohol, cocaine, marijuana and opiate painkillers. The accidents caused by impaired drivers haunt me. Thus, my interest in addictions research was originally cemented by these personal experiences, and my resolve to contribute to our understanding has continuously strengthened as modern technologies have provided new perspectives through which to view and understand addictive processes. Along the way, I have had the benefit of teachers and collaborators who have motivated and reinforced my investment in the study of science.
What aspect of your job do you enjoy the most?
Academic science is inextricably linked to the training and mentoring of the next generation of scientists and educators. I have had the immense pleasure of shepherding students, postdoctoral mentees and junior faculty through the creative process and am very proud of their accomplishments. When I think of this process, I am reminded of a quote from Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Mentees provide these new eyes which are focused on the future.
A very important aspect of my career is the continuing opportunity to lead the UTMB Center for Addiction Research, which provides the infrastructure for research, education and outreach in addiction and related disorders. We have built strengths in target-based discovery, disease-specific knowledge and specialized core technologies to amplify these efforts, and collaborate effectively across multiple disciplines including biochemistry, infectious diseases, neuroscience, structural biology, and pharmacology. We are home to the Translational Addiction Sciences Center, a National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)-funded P50 Center of Excellence and a NIDA T32 training program that provides exemplary training opportunities and funding for pre- and postdoctoral students.
You’re involved in several community outreach endeavors, such as Cruisin' 2 Recovery and the ADA House. Can you talk about your involvement with these efforts?
As I became more and more invested in the science of addictive disorders and teaching modern concepts in this area to graduate and medical students, residents and the community at large, it was a natural progression to engage more fully in community outreach. In 2006, the CAR along with the Gulf Coast Center Recovery Program launched “Cruisin' 2 Recovery,” which is now hosted by numerous community supporters. The free annual event brings together those recovering from addiction, addiction treatment professionals and educators to inspire members of the Galveston community to lead healthier lives and to fight the disease of addiction. In 2009, we were awarded a President’s Cabinet Award that aided the creation of the Galveston County Drug Court. Under the auspices of a grant funded by the American College on Neuropsychopharmacology in 2011, we expanded our educational efforts with the purchase of an impaired driving simulator to highlight the dangers of driving while intoxicated from a first-person perspective. The simulator is employed in about a dozen educational events across the county annually. I am constantly impressed by the excitement and generosity of CAR mentees, staff and faculty who volunteer their time to educate the public on drug abuse and addiction and the value of science to health initiatives.
My most humbling and enriching experience has been through my involvement on the board of directors of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Women’s Center. Treatment for substance use disorders can work, but only about 11 percent of Americans received treatment in 2012. The reasons for the treatment gap are myriad, and the ADA House is exemplary in providing comprehensive and extended treatment for women who have little hope for the future. Although the program is small, and constantly walking the financial tightrope, ADA House has "graduated" so many women who have remained in recovery and returned their lives to families and careers. And, they themselves "give back" with a gratitude that is truly heartwarming.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
LOL! I am arguably never “not working.” I enjoy staying connected with my research and mentoring activities on a daily basis. I do my best to balance these mental activities with long power walks on the beach with my husband Randy Carey and our teenage border collie rescues, Kimba and K.D. We are committed to recycling and composting and decided two years ago to add only edible plants to our yard. We now tend citrus, pomegranate, avocado and banana trees, and an extensive vegetable garden. I also have a never-ending love affair with music; my playlist today includes Adele, 7 Days of Funk, Miles Davis, Damian Marley and Frank Sinatra. I am always reading at least one fictional novel and one leadership book in my downtime and just finished "The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair" (Joel Dicker) and am working on the leadership book "What Got You Here Won’t Get You There" (Marshall Goldsmith). Is it surprising that someone who reads as a core activity of her career reads voraciously on her downtime?
What have you always wanted to do but have not yet done?
I haven’t flown a plane but would love to learn to fly. I do want to kayak and hike in the Parque Nacional Los Alerces and Los Glaciares in Patagonia and tour all of the countries in Central and South America. I would like to spend a week on every Caribbean island.