Opioid Research by UAHS MD-PhD Student Alex Sandweiss Receives Three Awards

Publish Date: 
May 2 2016
Jean Spinelli

Research aimed at understanding how opioids activate the reward pathway leading to addiction so that an alternative non-addictive pain reliever can be developed has won three awards for Alex Sandweiss, a student in the MD-PhD Program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson.

Sandweiss was one of 130 students who participated in the UA Graduate and Professional Student Council’s 2016 Student Showcase, an annual exhibition of undergraduate and graduate scholarship demonstrating the wide spectrum and value of UA student research projects. The only student-run research exhibition of its magnitude at the UA, the Showcase includes four categories: community-society, creative expression, education and research. Entries encompass a wide variety of disciplines, including performing arts and literature. State representatives and many community members serve as judges.



Alex’s entry won three awards in the research category:

  • 1st place, Graduate Research ($500). Judges evaluated students’ research based on quality of presentation, quality of research, value to the community and overall impression.
  • BIO5 Innovator Award ($350), which recognizes one graduate and one undergraduate student whose work best represents the goals of the UA BIO5 Institute in one of the following areas: multidisciplinary bioscience research, innovation in education, or entrepreneurship (including technology transfer and new ideas for public/private partnerships).
  • President’s Award ($1,000), sponsored by the UA President’s Office, which acknowledges one graduate and one undergraduate student who exemplifies outstanding academic research and community service.

“I am pleased to see one of our stellar MD-PhD students be recognized for the quality of his work. Alex not only is an extremely talented young investigator but also a member of the standing College of Medicine MD-PhD committee and an ambassador of our program. We celebrate his achievements and look forward to his contributions as a thought leader engaged in advancing the frontiers of medicine,” said Kenneth S. Ramos, MD, PhD, PharmB, director of the MD-PhD program, associate vice president for precision health sciences at the University of Arizona Health Sciences and interim dean of the UA College of Medicine – Phoenix.

The MD/PhD Program at the UA College of Medicine – Tucson was established in 1990 to provide dual training in medicine and research to talented individuals interested in careers as physician-scientists working in the public and private sectors. Sandweiss was accepted into the program in 2012 and has completed two years of medical school. He currently is a doctoral student in the laboratory of his mentor, Todd Vanderah, PhD, professor and head of the Department of Pharmacology with joint appointments in anesthesiology and neurology at the UA College of Medicine – Tucson. Sandweiss will defend his dissertation in June 2016, and go on to complete his third and fourth years of medical school.

As a graduate student in medical pharmacology, Sandweiss’ research has involved areas of neurological diseases such as chronic pain, migraine, addiction and traumatic brain injury. The studies for his dissertation examine the role of a poorly understood yet critical neurotransmitter, called substance p, in the mammalian mesolimbic reward system following opioid administration.

Understanding how opioids activate the reward pathway leading to addiction is crucial to developing a non-addictive pain reliever, the ultimate goal of Sandweiss and Dr. Vanderah. Chronic pain affects more than 100 million Americans and costs more than $600 billion annually to manage pain and lost work productivity. Opioids such as morphine have been the mainstay therapy for chronic pain for many years, yet growing evidence suggests that prescription narcotics are leading to drug addiction and heroin abuse in the U.S. More than 250 million opioid prescriptions were written in 2012, with 46 deaths per day due to prescription opioid and narcotic pain relievers, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sandweiss began working with Dr. Vanderah as an undergraduate, researching the mechanisms underlying cortical spreading depression (CSD) and its correlation to migraine headaches. He was able to help determine the link between excessive levels of estrogen and migraine.

He balanced his lab work with his musical endeavors, including playing piano for the UA Studio Jazz Ensemble, and graduated from the UA in 2011 with a bachelor of science in physiology and a minor in music, cum laude. He now is the arranger/director for DocApella, an acapella group of medical students and faculty at the College of Medicine – Tucson, and he has a deep interest in the role of music as an analgesic.

With an interest in both science and music as potential career options, it was Sandweiss’ time as an undergraduate in Dr. Vanderah’s lab and the clinic that gave him an appreciation for basic science research and its potential translation to patients. His interest and experience made him well-suited for a career as a physician-scientist.

As a member of the American Pain Society, International Narcotics Research Conference and the American Society of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, Sandweiss has gained many valuable insights from other scientists/clinicians in the development of therapies that positively impact people with disease. “In my pre-doctoral training, I’ve learned and utilized techniques to study the behavioral, cellular, molecular, genetic and biochemical aspects of how opioids modulate substance p in the reward pathways of the central nervous system, with hopes of achieving future non-addictive narcotics to help those with chronic pain,” stated Sandweiss.

“This preparation complements my clinical training and positions me as an ideal candidate to apply my findings directly to patients around the world.”

About the UA College of Medicine – Tucson

The University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson is advancing health and wellness through state-of-the-art medical education programs, groundbreaking research and advancements in patient care in Arizona and across the United States. Founded in 1967, the College ranks among the top medical schools in the nation for research and primary care and is leading the way in academic medicine through its partnership with Banner – University Medicine, a new division of one of the largest nonprofit health-care systems in the country. For more information: http://medicine.arizona.edu

About the University of Arizona Health Sciences

The University of Arizona Health Sciences is the statewide leader in biomedical research and health professions training. The UA Health Sciences includes the UA Colleges of Medicine (Phoenix and Tucson), Nursing, Pharmacy and Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, with main campus locations in Tucson and the growing Phoenix Biomedical Campus in downtown Phoenix. From these vantage points, the UA Health Sciences reaches across the state of Arizona and the greater Southwest to provide cutting-edge health education, research, patient care and community outreach services. A major economic engine, the UA Health Sciences employs almost 5,000 people, has nearly 1,000 faculty members and garners more than $126 million in research grants and contracts annually. For more information: http://uahs.arizona.edu

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