A potential new surgical treatment for cocaine and alcohol addiction only goes skin deep, but could leave a long-lasting impact.

Following successful experiments reported earlier this year in the journal Nature, researchers at the University of Chicago hope to launch human clinical trials of a new way to combat addiction through a genetically engineered skin graft.

University researchers Xiaoyang Wu and Ming Xu have seen mice hooked on cocaine and alcohol turn up their whiskers at the stuff after receiving a graft of genetically altered human skin.

By taking just a thumbnail size piece of skin from the patient, scientists can now use the gene-editing tool CRISPR to edit and grow new and improved cells, designed to regulate dopamine spikes against alcohol cravings or produce an enzyme that blocks the effects of cocaine , then reattach to the patient.

Mice forced to drink water laced with cocaine and alcohol were found to ignore their spiked options in favor of plain water after receiving a skin graft of altered human cells.

“The relapse rate is extremely high in the untreated mouse population, where it’s extremely low in the treated population because they have less of the craving,” Ryan Meyers, an MBA candidate at the University of Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune. “They’re not necessarily going to actually look for it.”

A piece of skin about the size of a thumbnail would be harvested from the patient, as illustrated in a video by AddGraft Therapeutics.
Courtesy of AddGraft
diagram of skin graft
The skin would be genetically altered to dull the effects of addictive substances and transplanted back onto the patient.
Courtesy of AddGraft

In humans, a small piece of harvested skin would be grown to the size of two credit cards, then transplanted back onto their body. The graft would rewrite how their bodies respond to those substances.

Wu told the Chicago Tribune that he and Xu are seeking approval from the Food and Drug Administration to try their hand at human skin. From there, it could take five years or more for the treatment to reach the public. The researchers also hope such a procedure could later be used to treat other diseases and disorders.

It holds promise for addicts with a history of relapse.

“We’ve gotten some heartbreaking emails from individuals asking to be in clinical trials,” said Meyers, a former health care consultant who formed the company AddGraft Therapeutics with Wu and Xu, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Michael Darcy, former CEO of Gateway Foundation rehab centers and now an unpaid member of AddGraft’s board of advisers, hopes it could help those who struggle to stick with other behavioral or pharmaceutical regimen to stave off cravings.

“The AddGraft is just another option for people,” he said. “I don’t think AddGraft is going to replace medication-assisted treatment or outpatient treatment or residential treatment, but it does add another possibility.”

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