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Genetics play a role in opioid addiction. A UC doctor is drilling down on the specifics

Emergency Medicine Caroline Freiermuth, MD, in the ER.
Colleen Kelley
University of Cincinnati
Caroline Freiermuth, MD, in the ER.

Ohio researchers are trying to determine who is at risk for opioid addiction and why. University of Cincinnati Emergency Medicine Dr. Caroline Freiermuth and her team screened over 1,300 patients at three Ohio urban emergency rooms and found 20% had opioid disorder.

The patients studied were at the ER for a variety of reasons. Some were already addicted to opioids, some had never taken them, and others were using them to manage acute pain. All of them were asked to be part of the study.

The subject of opioid addiction and genetics is important to the Ohio Attorney General. The state is in the top five for opioid deaths since 2014. Dave Yost announced the start of the research in 2020.

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The 20% of people who had opioid use disorder is higher than what was previously thought — 2% in the general population and 7-15% in emergency room settings.

"This is still a hidden disease," Freiermuth says. "People are afraid to talk about it and we really do need to do a better job of screening so that we can identify the people who have already developed this disorder and really get them into the treatment they need."

For genetics, she looked at the dopamine reward pathway and the metabolism of opioids for the study.

Using artificial intelligence, her team is analyzing the entire data set, including things like the environment, mental health disorders, and past experiences to see what role they play.

"The biggest takeaway is this adds to the body of research that says there is really a genetic component," Freiermuth says. "We're starting to hone down what the genetic component is and we could get to a point in the future when we could run tests and if you have opioid use disorder, we could run the test on you and we could run it on your children so that we could counsel people in the future that they may also be at risk."

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Freiermuth cautions we are still years away from being able to reliably predict who is at risk. The next step in her research is to study patients in a surgical setting who could get opioids for pain management.

Ann Thompson has decades of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting.