A physician-scientist at Oregon Health & Science University is one of just six researchers across the country to receive an Avenir Award in Genetics and Epigenetics of Substance Abuse from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health.
Jamie Lo, M.D., M.C.R., will use the award to develop and execute creative and transformative research to explore how parents’ behavior and environment affects their offspring before birth — in some cases, even before conception.
The award is expected to provide $1.5 million over five years. NIDA’s DP1 Avenir Awards support early-career investigators proposing new areas of research for the genetics or epigenetics of addiction.
Lo is an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology (maternal-fetal medicine) in the OHSU School of Medicine and the Division of Reproductive and Developmental Sciences at the Oregon National Primate Research Center (ONPRC) at OHSU.
“Being a scientist at ONPRC has allowed for leading-edge scientific pursuits across scientific and clinical disciplines with researchers at OHSU and at other institutions, and has allowed me to leverage the translational strength of nonhuman primate models that drive scientific discovery,” she said. “I’m grateful and really looking forward to new discoveries we can achieve next.”
In her clinical practice, Lo focuses on caring for people with high-risk pregnancies. She frequently encounters patients asking about the safety of cannabis use and other substances while they’re trying to conceive, while pregnant and during breastfeeding..
Most recently, Lo published two widely publicized studies suggesting that chronic use of cannabis may greatly affect male fertility and reproductive outcomes, and female reproductive health, including increased menstrual cycle length. The male fertility study, in nonhuman primates, used edible cannabis similar to human dosages and found significant decreases in male reproductive hormones, including testosterone, and greater than 50% shrinkage of the testicles.
In earning the elite Avenir Award, Lo credits the support she’s received from her clinical and academic departments, along with collaborations forged with other scientists at OHSU, including those in the departments of urology and biomedical engineering, and researchers at other top academic institutions.
Lo plans to use the new funding to delve into how the active ingredient in cannabis, THC, affects the expression of genes in the brains of offspring. The research will set out to determine how a father’s or mother’s consumption of cannabis may affect their offspring both in early childhood and later in life — or even their children’s offspring.
“We’re going to look at whether or not those changes that happen to the sperm, egg, fetus or infant are then inherited and how they impact offspring development,” she said.
Generally, due to the lack of safety data and the preliminary findings of her work, she advises expectant parents to refrain from cannabis use while pregnant and for those who cannot quit to limit use.
Lo said she feels privileged to be part of ONPRC’s team of scientists making discoveries that she can bring back to patients in the clinic.
“We do know that cannabis use seems likely to impact reproductive health and fertility in both males and females, and that prenatal cannabis exposure can adversely affect the placenta and fetus,” Lo said. “But it’s very hard to study cannabis in humans, especially in pregnancy, because people are often using other substances, affected by their socioeconomic conditions, limited by the inaccuracies of self-reporting, and the quantity and dose of THC used is often difficult to determine.”
Using a nonhuman primate model, scientists can control background variables, including diet and exercise, that would not be possible to achieve in people. The award number is 1DP1DA056493-01, through the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the NIH.
All research involving animal subjects at OHSU must be reviewed and approved by the university’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). The IACUC’s priority is to ensure the health and safety of animal research subjects. The IACUC also reviews procedures to ensure the health and safety of the people who work with the animals. The IACUC conducts a rigorous review of all animal research proposals to ensure they demonstrate scientific value and justify the use of live animals.