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Rober Lewis

Graduate Student, Robert Lewis, Explores Differences in Addiction Response

June, 11, 2020

As identical twins, Robert and his brother, David, invariably attract attention in public. But, it’s the differences between the two that inspired this UCI School of Medicine doctoral candidate to pursue a career in genetics.

“My brother and I are the same in a lot of aspects,” Lewis says. “But, the ways that we are different was always interesting to me and I wondered how that happened.”

Lewis launched his search for answers as a UCI undergraduate. He was curious how genetic and epigenetic differences might influence behavior. By his sophomore year, he was working in the lab of Emiliana Borrelli, PhD, a UCI School of Medicine professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics and member of the Center for Epigenetics and Metabolism, who is internationally renowned for her studies on the neurotransmitter dopamine and its role in brain diseases, movement disorders and addiction.

It has become a career-defining experience for Lewis, channeling his research interest into exploring how genetics and epigenetics influence the brain’s response to drugs of abuse.

“I think many people know someone who is an addict,” says Lewis. “That’s true in my life and I wanted to find a way to help these people who often struggle to quit for years.”

In 2016, a report from the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics estimated that about 1.9 million people aged 12 or older were current users of cocaine.

The widespread abuse of highly pure street cocaine, according to the US Drug Enforcement Agency, has led to severe adverse health consequences such as cardiac arrhythmias, ischemic heart conditions, sudden cardiac arrest, convulsions, strokes, and death.

Unlike a drug such as heroin, which can be treated with methadone or suboxone, there are no drugs to treat cocaine addiction. Lewis would like to change that.

“As an undergraduate, Robert showed his dedication and scientific rigor so much so that he gained everyone’s confidence in performing experiments independently,” recalls Borrelli.

Lewis has continued his research in Borrelli’s lab as a graduate student, using genetic and pharmacological approaches to address the problem of cocaine addiction.

In April, he was first author on a study published in Cell Reports, which explains how cocaine modifies functions in the striatum, a region of the brain responsible for the psychomotor and rewarding effects of drugs like cocaine, directly involved in the process of addiction.

The UCI research team reported that activation of the dopamine receptor D2R in cholinergic interneurons is central to the control of striatal neuronal circuits. The receptor significantly affects behavioral and cellular responses to cocaine. This knowledge could lead to therapeutic interventions that control the receptor as a means treat cocaine addiction.

Lewis has received support for his work from a UCI School of Medicine Dean's Fellowship and the Dr. Lorna Carlin Scholar Award.

He is grateful that an individual would take interest in funding graduate research. In fact, he says the additional resources made it possible to go down a path in their research that it might not otherwise have been possible to explore.

Before completing his doctorate, Lewis hopes to look at whether the same alteration found in cocaine applies to other drugs of abuse.

For now, he is making final revisions to a new peer-reviewed journal article as he shelters in place, waiting for his lab to reopen on the UCI campus. 

Ultimately, his goal is to direct a clinical molecular genetics laboratory that emphasizes therapeutic solutions for patients with neurological and psychiatric disorders. It will fulfill a destiny that was, to some degree, defined at birth. “Being a twin shaped my interests in neurogenetics and had a profound influence on my career choice,” he says.

Robert also wants to continue conducting research and mentoring future researchers.

“He is highly regarded as a teaching assistant and well-liked by his students,” said Borrelli. “In the laboratory, Robert demonstrates superior leadership qualities, taking initiative in training new members of the team, communicating needs of the laboratory to me and delegating tasks for laboratory upkeep.  Robert’s commitment and passion for science inspires the next generation of scientists.”