A team of University of Utah researchers, led by a professor of psychiatry at Huntsman Mental Health Institute, has been selected to develop a new treatment for substance use disorder as part of a $50 million commitment by Wellcome Leap.

Wellcome Leap is a United States-based nonprofit organization founded by the Wellcome Trust to accelerate and increase the number of breakthroughs in global health.

Research by the interdisciplinary University of Utah team will be funded by the Untangling Addiction program. The university is among 14 teams globally working to develop scalable measures to assess addiction susceptibility, quantify the risks stemming from addiction and develop innovative treatments.

Huntsman Mental Health Institute’s Dr. Brian Mickey said in a statement that substance use disorder is a significant global health problem, yet the treatment options are limited.

“We’re developing a noninvasive intervention for preventing and treating addiction, chronic pain and depression. This funding will help us validate and generate the data to support the next critical step: an efficacy trial to determine the effectiveness of the intervention,” Mickey said.

The Utah team includes investigators with expertise in psychiatry, biomedical engineering, neuroscience, radiology and social work.

Mickey’s team will use a novel ultrasound-based device to modulate deep brain regions and behaviors associated with opioid addiction. The goal is to develop this approach into individually targeted therapeutic interventions for a range of addictions.

According to Wellcome Leap, 108 million people globally are estimated to be addicted to alcohol. Nearly 40 million people worldwide are addicted to illicit drugs. Worldwide, someone dies from drug or alcohol addiction every four minutes.

Despite increases in spending on drug abuse prevention and treatment, there have been rising rates of alcohol and drug abuse, according to Wellcome Leap.

Worldwide efforts intended to reduce and treat addiction have been ineffective primarily because “only a fraction of people with addictions get treatment and treatment approaches are one-size-fits-all with minimal, if any, matching of treatment to the underlying physiology of the person with addiction.”

Also, there are no standard relapse prevention programs, thus more than half of those treated to achieve abstinence revert to their addiction within 90 days.

“To make matters worse, potentially addictive substances are increasing in number and potency,” Wellcome Leap’s Untangling Addiction website states.

Addictions are brain illnesses that have enormous negative impacts on individuals, families and society, Mickey said.

“A major reason that addictions have been difficult to prevent — and treat — is that they are driven by dysfunction of deep brain regions that are challenging to access. Many psychiatric problems such as depression, anxiety and addiction are caused by malfunction of brain circuits.

“This project is an example of our mission to understand how these neural circuits are dysregulated and to develop novel, circuit-targeted interventions that return the brain to a healthy state,” he said.

Dr. Mark Rapaport, CEO of Huntsman Mental Health Institute, said the research is especially impactful because “it brings together a variety of disciplines to help solve complex problems in mental health.”

The announcement by Wellcome Leap “is particularly timely news given the groundbreaking of a new translational research building on campus focused on mental health and the brain. Our nation is in a mental health crisis, but there is hope if we can think differently and work together to change this trajectory,” Rapaport said.