Present and Future

Burt M. Sharp, MD, Receives More Than $2.5 Million Grant

Memphis, Tenn. (October 20, 2009) Burt M. Sharp, MD, professor and Van Vleet Chair of Excellence in the Department of Pharmacology, College of Medicine, at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC), and his colleagues have been awarded $2,546,000 to identify how genes expressed in the brain make adolescents vulnerable to the addictive effects of nicotine. This very large-scale two-year grant runs through 2011.

Dr. Sharp and his colleagues, Shannon Matta, PhD, and Hao Chen, PhD, will use state-of-the-art gene sequencing technology coupled with laser capture of neurons to discover the genes that control the activity of specific nicotine-sensitive neurons within the brain. It is the activity of these neurons that drives individuals to seek and use nicotine, the major agent in cigarette smoke that stimulates the desire for cigarettes.

The Grand Opportunity (GO) Grant Program is part of the $700 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Nationwide, the 75 GO grants awarded support very large-scale research projects that accelerate critical breakthroughs in biomedical science through the use of cutting-edge technologies by multi-disciplinary research teams. This GO initiative sought novel approaches that would benefit from a dramatic influx of funds to quickly advance selected areas of biomedical research in highly significant ways. The grant funds are being channeled through the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Dr. Sharp will serve as principal investigator for the grant.

"This is an exceptional opportunity to drive our scientific understanding of nicotine addiction forward at a very rapid pace, producing volumes of new information that will require supercomputers to unravel," Dr. Sharp stated. "The information and insights will be made available to the worldwide scientific community. This database will help move UTHSC to the forefront of genetics and drug abuse, ultimately paving the way for novel treatments," he explained.

A member of the UTHSC College of Medicine faculty for 11 years, Dr. Sharp has held the Harriet S. Van Vleet Chair of Excellence in Pharmacology since 1998. Under his leadership, the UTHSC Pharmacology Department has recruited a large group of highly productive neuropharmacologists who receive competitive NIH funding for their fundamental studies of drug abuse and neurodegenerative diseases.

For 25 years, Dr. Sharp's NIH-funded research program has focused on the basic neurochemistry and molecular neurobiology of nicotine. Dr. Sharp and his collaborators have developed unique models of gestational, adolescent and adult exposure to nicotine. These models have demonstrated how nicotine changes the function of critical brain circuits that control the response to stress and to addictive drugs. They have recently shown that some of these brain changes may last for years.

The ultimate goal of the new GO grant is to identify unique genes and proteins that control the vulnerability to smoking during adolescence. The identification of these protein targets is the first major step in developing laboratory tests and novel drugs that can predict the risk for smoking dependence and treat this dependence in patients. The NIH panel that recognized the exceptional merit of this GO grant recommended funding based on the established strengths and varied talents of the team assembled at UTHSC, their long-term track record of research accomplishments in understanding nicotine addiction, and the importance of adolescent cigarette smoking -- a major unresolved public health problem in the United States.