Pfenning Wins NIDA Avenir Award

Grant Will Fund Research on Genetic Factors Associated With Substance Abuse

Andreas Pfenning has received a $1.5 million Avenir Award for genetics or epigenetics research from the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) has awarded Andreas Pfenning, assistant professor in the Computational Biology Department, an Avenir Award for genetics or epigenetics research, which the agency presents to early stage investigators who propose highly innovative studies.

The award includes a five-year, $1.5 million grant that will sponsor the Pfenning laboratory's efforts to discover genetic factors associated with the predisposition to addiction.

"The development of new treatments for substance use disorders has remained difficult due to the complexity of the neural circuits and the underlying genetic mechanisms," Pfenning said. Research suggests that regulatory regions of the human genome, particularly regions known as enhancers that increase the likelihood that particular genes are transcribed, are associated with complex brain disorders, such as addiction.

"Despite the importance of enhancer regions in the brain, the computational and experimental tools to study their function are still in their infancy," Pfenning added. His lab will develop a map that links genetic variation associated with substance abuse to neural enhancer function and establish a computational and experimental framework to study any combination of enhancers and genetic variations in different brain regions, cell types and animal models.

The Avenir Awards — "avenir" is the French word for "future" — represent NIDA's commitment to supporting researchers who represent the future of addiction science. Pfenning was one of six recipients in 2018.

Pfenning, who joined the faculty in 2016, received a 2018 Sloan Research Fellowship and last year was named part of an all-star international research team by the Cure Alzheimer's Fund. He earned his bachelor's degree in computer science at Carnegie Mellon, and his Ph.D. in computational biology and bioinformatics at Duke University.

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