Local | Mind, Body & Spirit

UA student’s research is breakthrough in pain, addiction

Alexander Sandweiss
Alexander Sandweiss

Understanding how to provide narcotics for pain management, while avoiding potential addiction to opiates, can be difficult for physicians and patients alike. Chronic pain affects more than 100 million Americans and opioids such as morphine have been the mainstay therapy for many years. Yet growing evidence suggests that prescription narcotics are leading to drug addiction and heroin abuse in the United States. More than 250 million opioid prescriptions were written in 2012, with 46 people dying each day from an overdose, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

University of Arizona M.D.-Ph.D. student Alex Sandweiss recently won three awards for his research looking for a way to provide pain management without the addictive side effects. Focusing on the role of a neurotransmitter known as substance p, which is released in the spinal cord when the body experiences pain, Sandweiss has been successful in his research. “My role in the lab was showing how substance p propagates the signaling of opiate reward in the brain,” explains Sandweiss. “By blocking that signaling, using a pharmacological tool and a genetic tool, we were able to prevent opiate addiction and provide pain relief in animals.”

Sandweiss won the President’s Award, the BIO5 Innovator Award and the first place award for graduate research in the UA Graduate and Professional Student Council’s 2016 Student Showcase in February.

This research became Sandweiss’ main dissertation project, which he defended in June, earning his Ph.D. in pharmacology. Currently, Sandweiss and his advisor, Todd Vanderah, Ph.D., are continuing to collect data as they finalize a manuscript they will submit for publication in the next two to three weeks. This research could potentially change the way doctors understand pain management. “We’ve done a few things,” says Sandweiss. “We’ve shown how important substance p is in propagating opiate reward. That’s important, because we can now tamper with that system, and prevent it. We’ve developed a novel compound that turns on the opioid system of the body, but turns off the substance p system. By doing that, we are able to inhibit pain and prevent the reward response, or eventual addiction, to those opioids.”

The UA M.D.-Ph.D. program was established in 1990 and provides dual training in medicine and research. As an undergraduate at the UA, Sandweiss began doing research in a lab to help himself stand out in medical school applications. Uncertain as to whether he wanted to focus on a future in research or clinical work, Sandweiss was able to pursue both through the M.D.-Ph.D. program. “I realized that people can do research and see patients, and decided that’s what I wanted to do,” he says. Having received his Ph.D. in June, he will complete two more years of medical school and receive his MD in May 2018.

In addition to his research, Sandweiss is also known for his annual contributions to the Jewish Medical Student Association holiday meals. “I’m the matzah ball soup guy. I make and bring the matzah ball soup,” he says.

Sandweiss is also the arranger and director for the medical school a cappella group, DocApella, and performs around town with the Triple Double Band, started by Jim and Tom Cracovaner, two brothers he met on a Birthright Israel trip with the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation. “Music is a big part of my life outside of the medical stuff,” says Sandweiss — yet he also combines the two with an interest in the role of music as a pain reliever.

Laura Wilson Etter is a freelance journalist, grant writer and artist in Tucson.