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Challenge Seeks Precise Addiction Strategies, Biomarkers, Treatments

Heroin abuse illustration

(RenoBarenger, Pixabay.

21 Nov. 2023. A challenge competition with a $50 million purse seeks new strategies to attack the global substance abuse epidemic, including personalized diagnostics and treatments. Wellcome Leap, an organization in Los Angeles that conducts crowdsourced competitions to rapidly advance the science of health care worldwide is sponsoring the challenge, with an initial deadline for abstracts of 21 Dec. 2023.

The Untangling Addiction challenge, says Wellcome Leap, aims to break a continuing cycle of addiction to alcohol and drugs, leading to early deaths and despair, and affecting every part of the world. The organization cites data showing the number of people worldwide with substance abuse rose by 45 percent between 2009 and 2019. In the U.S., 29.5 million people age 12 and over met the criteria for alcohol addiction, while 24 million are abusing drugs. But all regions, says the group, are struggling with high numbers of people with alcohol and drug addictions.

Compounding the problem, says Wellcome Leap, few current strategies for preventing and treating addictions seem to be working. Only a fraction of the population needing help is receiving treatment, and most addiction treatments follow the same basic approach for each recipient, without considering individual biological or neurological factors. And few effective programs prevent relapses that occur within 90 days among more than half of those treated. In addition, says the organization, new sources of addiction have emerged from abuse of prescription opioid pain killers, serving as gateway drugs for heroin and dangerous synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

Seeking new personalized treatments for addiction

The Wellcome Leap challenge calls for better methods to measure and quantify an individual’s susceptibility for addiction to different substances, particularly opioids, as well as risks of relapse. And the competition seeks new personalized treatments for addiction that allow for quantitative assessments, to reduce relapse and boost abstinence rates.  The organization divides the program into five major topics:

  1. Quantitative addiction measures and models based on biomarkers and neurological indicators
  2. Demonstration and validation of neurological biomarkers for alcohol and drug abuse, particularly those accessible by simple and non-invasive means
  3. Long-term studies of opioid addiction risk, abuse, and prevention strategies
  4. Retrospective studies of biological and health datasets to reveal biomarkers associated with alcohol and drug abuse
  5. New treatments for alcohol and drug abuse, including medications and devices, as well as therapies targeting relapse, with the goal of doubling current efficacy rates

Wellcome Leap is seeking proposals that address one or more of the five topics from individuals, small teams, or coalitions worldwide. The challenge is open to researchers affiliated with universities, research institutes, companies, not-for-profit organizations, and government labs. Initial seven-page abstracts are due by 21 Dec. 2023, with feedback as well as invitation to submit a full proposal returned by 5 Jan. 2024. If invited, full proposals are due by 5 Feb. 2024, with selections for funding made by 6 Mar. 2024.

The Untangling Addiction challenge has a total prize purse of $50 million. However, Wellcome Leap says there are no pre-set award numbers or amounts, with funding determined by the specific proposals. Individuals or organizations not yet registered with Wellcome Leap will need to complete the group’s master funding agreement to receive an award.

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