The Daily Iowan

UI professors commercialize years of addiction research

Two companies have launched in the past decade based off of research done in part by a University of Iowa professor. These companies seek to easier diagnose, recommend treatment, and evaluate risk for people who suffer from addiction.

The+UI+Research+Park+is+seen+on+Monday%2C+Sept.+10%2C+2018.+Behavioral+Diagnostics+LLC.%2C+located+inside+the+research+facility%2C+conducted+research+on+diagnosing+addiction+with+a+drop+of+blood.+
The UI Research Park is seen on Monday, Sept. 10, 2018. Behavioral Diagnostics LLC., located inside the research facility, conducted research on diagnosing addiction with a drop of blood.

The UI Research Park is seen on Monday, Sept. 10, 2018. Behavioral Diagnostics LLC., located inside the research facility, conducted research on diagnosing addiction with a drop of blood.

Thomas A. Stewart

Thomas A. Stewart

The UI Research Park is seen on Monday, Sept. 10, 2018. Behavioral Diagnostics LLC., located inside the research facility, conducted research on diagnosing addiction with a drop of blood.

Paul Elwell, News Reporter

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Two businesses are measuring addiction and looking at its effects with as little as one drop of blood.

UI psychiatry Professor and CEO of Behavioral Diagnostics Robert Philibert has spent decades studying the epigenetic effects stemming from substance abuse, which was uncharted territory at the time he and his team began.

The research has led to stunning developments in the study of addiction and substance abuse and has allowed Philibert and others to launch a commercial company using the research, Behavioral Diagnostics.

In the early 2000s, Philibert discovered that cells are changed by the effects of smoking and alcohol.

According to the Behavioral Diagnostics website, white blood cells “reprogram” their genome so they can produce enzymes that get rid of toxins. When the cells reprogram, their DNA sequence does not change. Instead, the gene’s methylation status (CH3) changes, turning off key portions of the genes.

“I don’t make extravagant claims, I publish them,” Philibert said.

Using the data from methylation levels in their subjects, Philibert and his team can make several determinations. Diagnosing addiction currently relies heavily on self-reporting; however, this has proved to be unreliable. People tend to lie to their physicians, Philibert said.

With Behavioral Diagnostics’ techniques, not only can smoking and drinking addiction be quantitatively measured, but the effects can be seen over a long period of time, even years, he said.

Behavioral Diagnostics was founded in 2009. While it does not currently have the appropriate licensing from the FDA to use its methods clinically, it targets markets in which the members believe their research will have a great impact and success.

We were looking at genetics, and by adding environmental risks in the form of epigenetics, we found we could do it better. This one test is able to do better than aggregating multiple tests.”

— Meesha Dogan

“We are mainly looking at two markets,” marketing director and UI graduate student Aaron Morse said. “The first is underwriting in insurance, because smoking and alcohol addiction are good predictors of death. Knowing addiction levels can influence the insurance market. The second is attorneys, who are looking at people who have gotten DUIs, etc.”

We were looking at genetics, and by adding environmental risks in the form of epigenetics, we found we could do it better. This one test is able to do better than aggregating multiple tests.[/pullquote]

Following the success of Philibert’s research and Behavioral Diagnostics, another company started in 2017.

Meesha Dogan, the CEO of Cardio Diagnostics, studied as a graduate student under Philibert. Together, they had the idea of pairing Philibert’s research in epigenetics and addiction to smoking with genetic data to predict an individual’s risk of heart disease.

“We were looking to basically understand the risk of smoking in cardiovascular disease,” Dogan said. “We were looking at genetics, and by adding environmental risks in the form of epigenetics, we found we could do it better. This one test is able to do better than aggregating multiple tests.”

Cardio Diagnostics is in its early stages. It is pre-revenue and hopes to launch in the third quarter of 2019. The firm is seeking investment to fund the launch.

“Smoking costs $300 billion a year in the economy, and the only people getting richer are the tobacco companies,” Philibert said. “Quite frankly, it’s elevating the costs for everyone involved and is a completely voluntary habit. I understand it is additive, but there are lots of things that are addictive. All you have to lose is spending $10 a day, bad breath, poor health, and a bad habit.”

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