IUPUI Professor Conducting Drug Research Using Worms

An IUPUI psychology professor is using worms to conduct pioneering research of the human relationship with drugs.

Bethany Neal-Beliveau, Ph.D, an associate professor of psychology at IUPUI, has dedicated her entire career to drug research. After graduating with a degree in psychopharmacology, Neal-Beliveau began researching rats, studying how they reacted to different opiates and stimulants.

Neal-Beliveau became interested in conducting research on worms after being contacted by a student who discovered that the neurobiology of the C. elegans worms is simple and well-designed, making them a perfect subject for research.

The caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans), a nematode worm of about 1 mm length, has a total lifespan of nearly three weeks, growing from an egg to an adult in three days. Despite their size, about 35 percent of the C. elegans genes are similar to humans.

The genome is small compared to humans, yet it encodes over 22,000 proteins, only slightly fewer than humans.

Along with its evident similarities to humans, the C. elegans short lifespan makes it an ideal candidate for student research. Student researchers are able to study the worm throughout its entire lifespan, which would not be possible with traditional rat research.

Photo courtesy of Society for Mucosal Immunology

Photo courtesy of Society for Mucosal Immunology

“The hope is that we can use worms to very quickly test new drugs that might be useful for different types of addiction,” Neal-Beliveau explains, “If we can use C. elegans as that first step, we can hopefully cancel out drugs that won’t work.”

In the first steps of research, it needed to be determined whether or not the worms would have an innate response to different drugs. An agar plate, a petri dish used to support the growth of microorganisms, was separated in half, with one side containing a water solution and the other containing a drug solution.

The worms quickly chose the drug solution.

Through a number of experiments, it was found that worms, much like humans, prefer stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamines at low concentrations. The worms have also shown a preference for opiates when placed in an agar dish.

However, when exposed to alcohol, C. elegans do not initially engage with the solution.

“Similar to other organisms, you have to trick them into liking alcohol,” Neal-Beliveau said, “They don’t care for it at the beginning, but once you pre-expose them to it they’ll choose it over the other solution.”

Over time, and with the help of a grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the research has evolved into searching for new therapeutics to ultimately treat alcohol addiction and decrease relapse.

“They’re an excellent screening tool,” Simon Katner, Ph.D, another C. elegans researcher, “The worms are useful for that.”

The grant received by the NIAAA is a medications grant, meaning it will concern details of developing a drug screen with the C. elegans to test for potential drug therapies.

“[Drug abuse] is a problem throughout the world and we’re still uncovering basics,” Katner said, “I hope that we can use these organisms to find new therapies and better understand the mechanisms involved that contribute toward drug abuse.”