This prestigious full-time PhD studentship is part of a multidisciplinary collaboration funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC-UK). The overall aim of this project is to understand how benzodiazepines and opioids interact to increase the likelihood of fatal overdose (both from a neuro-biological and drug-user perspective) so that we can help design new harm reduction interventions that could reduce the number of overdoses in the population.
Drug-related deaths are now at the highest ever recorded in the UK and the highest rate in Europe. In 2020 there were nearly 1200 opioid poisoning deaths - involving heroin or methadone or other opioids - in Scotland and over 2200 in England. Many opioid users take other drugs as well - called poly-drug use - and the combination of opioids and benzodiazepines (colloquially known as benzos) has been identified as one possible reason for the increase in overdose deaths in the UK. In recent years, there has been a rise in the availability and use of illicit or "street" benzos such as Etizolam. In Scotland, there has been a doubling of the number of opioid overdose deaths in the last five years and over 75% of the deaths involved opioids and street benzos. The way these drugs interact in the brain and how they combine to increase the risk of overdose is not known and is the primary aim of this project. Our experiments will be informed also by what people who use opioids and benzos experience and what accounts they give of how and why they take benzos and opioids together.
This project brings together an experienced team of researchers from a range of disciplines including qualitative research, public health, physiology, and neuropharmacology; all with experience in studying opioid drugs. Together, we will take a coordinated, trans-disciplinary approach to investigate how benzos increase the risk of fatal opioid overdose. The methods you will learn are all routine to our group and involve the use of in vivo and in situ Pharmacology techniques in rodents, including unrestrained whole-body plethysmography, electrophysiology, immunohistochemistry, and imaging. An important part of your work will involve interactions with qualitative researchers using real-world evidence to inform your laboratory studies; and providing experimental data that will inform future harm reduction strategies. This translational component will provide you with the opportunity to interact with stakeholders and therefore develop other transferable skills valued both in academic and industrial research environments.
This project is designed for an enthusiastic student with excellent organizational skills, a keen interest in understanding human disease, who enjoys working hard in a team with varied research backgrounds and can communicate their findings to different types of audiences. It is expected that the student would be a co-author on several research papers.
Keywords. Heroin, Opioid substitution treatment, Benzodiazepines, Overdose, Respiratory depression