By Kristin Schultz
NISKAYUNA — Science, in all of its disciplines, is essentially the study of the world around us.
Andrew Stewart, a 2014 Niskayuna High School graduate, is taking what he observed in his world as a child and turning it into research he hopes will help hundreds of thousands of people.
Stewart, who recently completed his junior year at the University at Buffalo, won honorable mention in this year’s Goldwater scholarship contest. He is working on research he hopes will lead to a medication (specifically a pharmacotherapeutic) for substance-abuse disorders. Since he was a child, he has watched his older brother struggle with heroin addiction.
At first, Stewart thought he wanted to be a physician, but then shifted his focus to research. After a stint in a lab that was ill-suited to his interests, he is now working in a lab studying behavior and changes in the brain as it relates to drug use.
“I’m heavily involved in research in the hippocampus and the dysregulation of a certain protein in that area,” Stewart said. “That seems to control the increased craving for the drug.”
He went on to explain that research was showing that, counterintuitively, the longer someone is off a drug, the craving for the drug actually increases over time until the person hits a plateau and the cravings level off.
“I’m interested in stopping increased cravings to reduce relapse vulnerability,” he said.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the relapse rate for drug addiction is between 40 and 60 percent.
“The most successful treatments currently are only accessible to people who can afford it,” Stewart said. Those treatments — mainly cognitive therapy — involve relocating to a rehabilitation center, often out of state, and staying for months to get treatment.
“It’s very expensive and very time-consuming,” he said. “That’s not a knock on it, that’s just how it is.”
Other treatment, like methadone clinics, have positive outcomes but are not always options.
“Methadone gives you a little high and people who stick with it consistently don’t get involved with crimes associated with drug use,” Stewart said. “It is a mild reward that keeps people out of jail and from going through withdrawal.”
It’s not ideal, though, he points out, especially for women who, if they become pregnant, have to quit the methadone and go through withdrawal, or their child is born addicted to methadone and goes through withdrawal.
“It’s good to have something to keep people off illegal drugs, but it’s still not great. At least heroin has therapeutics available. If you’re addicted to a psychostimulant, you’re SOL.”
It was heroin and his brother’s addiction to it that Stewart and his family have dealt with. Stewart said his brother broke his jaw and was prescribed prescription painkillers.
“He moved to heroin after that; I was about 6 years old,” he said. “Since then, there have been good times and bad times.”
Stewart’s brother has six children, some of whom have been taken by the state. Stewart said his brother would like to have custody of his kids, but he can’t take care of them.
“Heroin has captured the nation’s attention because middle class and upper middle class kids haven’t died in numbers like these since AIDS. This is something that affects parts of society that aren’t used to dealing with these issues,” he said.
In addition to upper middle class suburban communities being in denial about heroin and opioids in their midst, there is also a societal stigma associated with those who use drugs.
“People don’t think of substance-abuse disorders as real,” he said. “They think people want to do drugs or we’ll punish them and that will make them stop. There needs to be a big shift in the way we treat and help people with these sorts of disorders.”
Drug use and stress eating are similar, Stewart said. When people stress eat, they want that dopamine release associated with eating the candy bar. The desire to feel good, either by way of emotional eating or using drugs, is essentially the same from a brain-chemistry perspective.
Stewart has one more year of undergraduate work and will then pursue a Ph.D., which will take another five years. This summer he will head to Mount Sinai Health System in New York City to work and learn. Stewart is also looking at advanced programs from South Carolina to California.
He plans to be a professor and continue to work on medication to treat substance-abuse disorders. Although a relatively young field of study, Stewart believes a cure is possible in his lifetime.
“Getting a pharmacotherapeutic to market is the goal,” he said. “If that happens, you’re talking about helping thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people. That’s incredible.”