Society For The Study Of Addiction

PhD blog: oxytocin and navigating COVID-19 in new research

Ben Houghton

“Who’d have thought when I was in a hotel room in Beijing in 2015 thinking of where to take my MSc, that 5 years later I’d be including a risk management plan for a global pandemic in my ethics application to run a human study in June…utter madness.”

Let me rewind. The year was 2015 and I was in a very plush hotel in China which was part of my post-MSc reward to myself. I had completed two years of part time study whilst working full time in a busy community drug service as I undertook the ‘International Programme in Addiction Studies’ MSc, jointly awarded by Kings College London, Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Adelaide.

Oxytocin – the missing piece?

I’d just learned about oxytocin, that it ‘prevented drug use in animal models’, that it had been successfully used in human cue extinction (so would obviously work with human drug triggers, right?) and it made perfect sense to me – thinking within the optimistic, rose tinted bubble of a naive new PhD! Oxytocin was ‘the missing piece’ and my research could provide the push required to open the addiction equivalent of Tutankhamen’s tomb….but how?

My idea was simple: use oxytocin like someone who has asthma uses an inhaler so when people crave drugs they can use oxytocin to reduce the craving and reduce drug use. Easy, right? What followed was 2 years of setup, getting a team together and being told my idea was ‘too new to research’ (I’m still not sure how that makes sense?) before I was even accepted by a university.

The first alarm bell for most people was that my research requires us to induce craving in current injecting opioid users in order to see how oxytocin can reduce those cravings (though we’re actually looking at the specific mechanism of craving in a proof of concept study). After rewriting the design two or three times since 2016, demonstrating how commonplace cue-inducement is within research and referring to the lack of adverse events associated with oxytocin and cue-inducement, the team finally reached a place where we could submit the ethics application…..and suddenly COVID-19 swept the globe.

COVID-19 and the ethics application

So we added a risk management plan. All participants to wash their hands on arrival, all IT equipment to be wiped down with disinfectant wipes, no group work, recruitment to start at the end of the infection peak, amending inclusion criteria to reflect absence of COVID-19 symptoms and excluding at-risk patients. Two days after writing this, I saw the official COVID-19 infection control advice which provided a handy reference and the NHS Health Research Authority has also published guidance on managing the impact of COVID-19 within research studies.

I am due to submit for ethics in April and COVID-19 is not going to stop me applying. A PhD is about surmounting the insurmountable, learning to adapt when all roads seemingly become dead ends and most of all enduring through adversity. Guidance for COVID-19 exists that can be included in study designs to ensure the safety of participants which is obviously paramount in these unprecedented times. Life is not linear and neither is research but without research there would be no solutions to opioid overdose or COVID-19.

Ben Houghton is studying his PhD at St George’s University of London working at ‘Targeting Opioid Related Deaths: Prevalence, Perspectives and the Potential Role of Oxytocin’. He also works as a psychosocial practitioner and has nine years’ experience working in community addiction treatment services.

Follow Ben on twitter @BHoughton78

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