by Barrett Seaman –
A New Jersey laboratory, better known for its work in behavioral research, was recently awarded a $49.9 million grant by a component of the National Institutes of Health to find a non-addictive substitute for opioids, and two Tarrytown women are right in the thick of the potentially historical research effort.
Nichole Roberts, 43 this month, an Associate Scientist in charge of studies, and Katie Feller, 37, a Research Associate, work side by side, performing pre-clinical testing—mostly on rats—at PsychoGenics Inc in Paramus, New Jersey, in search of a pain suppressant as effective as Fentanyl or Oxycontin but without the addictive characteristics at the heart of the current opioid crisis.
“There is a tremendous need for non-addictive treatments for the more than 50 million individuals who suffer from chronic pain in the U.S.,” said Emer Leahy, President and CEO of PsychoGenics, at the time the NIH award was announced. “It is an honor to be awarded this contract.” The duration of the grant is five years, and if the search is successful, whatever drug compounds emerge will go on to clinical trials on humans.
Roberts and Feller work as a team—Nichole as an animal surgeon, Katie as her surgical assistant. Trigger warning: it is necessary for them to first induce pain in their rat subjects so that they can evaluate the efficacy of different drug compounds in relieving that pain. They run a variety of tests on a rat surgically modified for pain, among them self-administration. The rats self-medicate by pressing a lever until the pain has subsided to a point where they no longer feel a need to press the lever. Compounds that rats still seek even after the source of the pain has been removed are deemed potentially addictive. Each of the potential pain-killing compounds is tested against a non-addictive control drug, Gabapentin, known to reverse pain associated with neuropathy, among other uses.
Neither Roberts nor Feller is a medical doctor, not even a veterinarian. Nichole has a Bachelor of Science degree from Purdue; Katie’s degree is in animal science. They previously worked at Tarrytown-based Regeneron Corporation. Nichole’s previous work was on drugs to treat Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and Alzheimer’s.
PsychoGenics responded to a call for applicants by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), issued in 2018 for the screening of investigational agents. According to Roberts, the lab was up against the entire universe of national drug research facilities, including those run by Big Pharma as well as academic and commercial labs. “Our methodology is what attracted NIH to pick us over other institutions,” she says. Now that the company has won it, they are ramping up by hiring project managers and technicians to help interface with NIH and observe all its strict guidelines and protocols. “We have to sign into a portal through which they can see everything we’re doing,” she said. “It’s different from anything we’re used to.”
The two scientists commute separately to Paramus and back, as they each have kids with different schedules. Nichole, who is single, has a ten-year-old daughter, Gwyneth, while Katie, who is married, has Ryland, 8, and Makenna, 5, to care for. Thus, they have challenging jobs both in Tarrytown and Paramus. Said Nichole: “We have to do science on our toes.”