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Training program connects scholars for research collaboration

Andrea Hobkirk, PhD, is studying the problem of relapse after addiction treatment.

Hobkirk, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral health and public health sciences at Penn State College of Medicine, recently was a scholar in Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute’s Early-Stage Investigator Program (KL2).

A head-and-shoulders professional photo of Andrea Hobkirk

Andrea Hobkirk, PhD

She left the program when she was successful in securing a career development award from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It is through the Early-Stage Investigator Program that she met a collaborator, fellow scholar Dr. Steven Hicks. Hobkirk recently received a Young Investigator Grant from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation for the collaborative project.

“Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute’s KL2 program was critical in helping me obtain this award by affording me the time and resources to develop the project,” Hobkirk said. “The program also introduced me to my collaborator, Dr. Hicks, whose expertise is essential for completing the project aims.”

The research could lead to an inexpensive and non-invasive method to measure brain responses to addiction treatment. By understanding these changes, the effectiveness of an addiction treatment program can be determined for each patient.

“In sustained recovery, patients have more self-control over compulsive substance use and more enjoyment from activities that don’t involve substance use,” Hobkirk said. “These improvements are driven by changes in brain function. New research shows that changes in the genetic material in saliva may reliably show these brain changes.”

To test this idea, Hobkirk will study those who are addicted to nicotine. Smokers will receive study cigarettes with very low nicotine levels or with usual nicotine levels for six weeks while they provide saliva samples and complete functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure brain function. The study explores potential links between genetic information in the saliva and brain changes related to improvements in self-control and reward response. Hobkirk is collaborating with Hicks because he is using a similar method involving genetic material in saliva to screen for autism.

“The results will bring us closer to identifying biomarkers that can provide early signs that addiction treatment is or is not working for an individual. This will help us to change or extend interventions for those who are not responding to treatment to prevent the risk of relapse,” Hobkirk said.

The collaboration shows the strength of the Early-Stage Investigator Program.

“Our KL2 program brings together junior faculty from a variety of scientific disciplines in a cross-campus research training program,” Dr. Diane Thiboutot, program co-director and endowed professor of dermatology, said. “The face-to-face interactions of our scholars within the program allows them to generate ideas for interdisciplinary, team-based research.  We are excited to add the recent success of Drs.  Hobkirk and Hicks in receiving the Brain and Behavior Research Award to our growing list of successful collaborative research grants among our KL2 scholars at Penn State.”

Added Hicks, “Participation in the Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute’s Early-Stage Investigator Training Program allowed us to identify opportunities for synergy in our research programs and led to Dr. Hobkirk’s innovative and successful application to the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation.”

Hobkirk is an assistant professor of psychiatry and public health sciences. Hicks is an assistant professor of pediatrics. Grant K23 DA045081 supports this project. Grant KL2TR002015-02 supports Hicks. Lorah Dorn, professor of nursing, is the co-director of the Early-Stage Investigator Training Program.

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