Home » Rigor and RelevanceSpring 2010

That Alcohol Is Going On Your Permanent Record

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In grade school students are often told that acts could “go on their permanent record”—a mythical file that impacts everything from college admissions to job searches. Today, College of Arts and Science researchers seek to discover if there’s a true kind of permanent record that resides in a person’s white blood cells.


John McLean, assistant professor of chemistry, and John Wikswo, Gordon A. Cain University Professor and director of the Vanderbilt Institute for Integrative Biosystems Research and Education, are researching the possibility that white blood cells retain chemical memories of drug and alcohol use. In other words, even if a person has not used cocaine in years, his body may still retain a record of it. Their research is based on the finding that each instance of drug use causes a reaction in the immune system. That reaction creates special bio-molecules that could serve as identifying markers for each exposure.

“In essence, we are hitting these cells with a hammer to hear how they ring and to determine if those that have been exposed to a drug ring differently,” Wikswo says.

The research could have several applications.

  • Cancer patients may benefit from improved analysis of biopsy material that could help determine optimal chemotherapy regimes.
  • More effective addiction treatment strategies could be developed on a case-by-case basis, thanks to precise details about an individual’s drug use and new information on the biological pathways that control addictive behavior.
  • Better drug testing and detection.
  • Development of sensors that identify biological warfare agents.

The Arts and Science pair is collaborating on this project with researchers from Cornell, Duke and the National Institute of Drug Abuse. They also have another key partner in the process—a robot scientist. This new class of instrument will run thousands of virtual experiments—and hundreds of actual ones—every day, without human interaction.

A $2.7 million Recovery Act grant from the National Institute of Drug Abuse and a $1.5 grant from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency fund the research.

photo credit: Daniel Dubois

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