Assistant Pro­fessor of Chem­istry Kelli Kazmier pre­sented her research on drug addiction at the atomic level last Thursday as a part of Mossey Library’s “Our Faculty’s Ongoing Research” lecture series. 

Kazmier spoke on her findings per­taining to drug addiction and its effect on the human body. Specif­i­cally, the way drugs impact dopamine levels in the brain. 

“One of the inter­esting fea­tures of drug addiction is that it seems to modify this dopamine pathway,” she said. “We have pre-existing evi­dence that sug­gests that when you mess with the dopamine pathway — when you mess with the levels of dopamine in the brain — you have a wide range of effects.”

Effects like euphoria and motor control loss are common. With drugs increasing dopamine levels, the body is arti­fi­cially rewarding itself — which impacts the learning center of the brain. “You’re basi­cally teaching the brain that drugs are good,” she said.

The end goal in her research is to help create a sub­stance that imi­tates the impact of drugs, with no neg­ative side effects.

“The goal in the long term would be to try to identify how it’s working so that we could modify it in a way that would help us treat addiction,” she said. “Like a stim­ulant that wouldn’t have any addictive side effects.”

Kazmier specif­i­cally studies the dopamine trans­porter: the protein that removes dopamine after release. The dopamine trans­porter is specif­i­cally tar­geted by cocaine and amphetamines. 

“The way we get dopamine into the synapse, the way we get ele­vated dopamine in the brain is by blocking the protein that removes it,” she said. “That’s how cocaine works: blocking the protein that takes [dopamine] back up into the cells and removes it from the inter­cel­lular spaces.”

The dopamine trans­porter is dif­ficult to study in a lab, however, so Kazmier and her team of stu­dents turn to a similar protein: the leucine transporter. 

 “The leucine trans­porter is a protein, it’s in the same family. It’s related. It does a similar job, but it comes with less of the baggage,” she said. “It doesn’t have the same neg­ative struc­tural fea­tures that make it impos­sible to study in the lab.”

Leucine is easy to study in the lab but it has a clear dif­ference: leucine does not transport chloride while dopamine trans­porters do. But some evi­dence sug­gests it was pos­sible to change this and make leucine carry chloride, too, which would make testing leucine far more useful in under­standing dopamine. 

“There’s this lit­er­ature out there that sug­gests that if you make a single point mutation to leucine, you can convert it to transport chloride as well — to make it more like the dopamine trans­porter,” she said. 

So Kazmier and her stu­dents tested it in their Dow Science lab. 

“We unex­pectedly found that making the mutation does not do what we thought it would do,” she said. 

Leucine reacted dif­fer­ently than expected and Kazmier has years of research ahead of her to figure out why. 

“Anytime you get a result that com­pletely defies your expec­ta­tions, you’re off to the races,” she said. “It’s a brand new part. We have to track down every lead, we have to figure all this out. This is gonna be a major project in my lab for a while.”

She pre­dicts it may take her entire career to figure out the leucine and dopamine trans­porter rela­tionship. Kamzier spoke at length about these exper­i­ments to a crowd of over 50 students.

Con­structing the talk was “a bit of a chal­lenge,” Kazmier said, as she had to con­dense slides from 12 lec­tures for the presentation. 

“I taught an entire course on this material and I con­densed it into a 40-minute chat,” she said. 

Not only has Kazmier taught a course on this topic, but she has been studying it for over 13 years.

“I’ve always had this interest in drug addiction. Like many of us, I have addiction in my family,” she said.

One summer in college, Kazmier pursued this interest by reading hun­dreds of pages on the science of drug addiction. 

“When I was doing my summer intern­ships, I would go to the library and check out every book on a topic,” she said. “One summer I decided I would learn every­thing there is to know on drugs and abuse.”

When it came time for her graduate work, she knew she wanted to research this topic, but not “explicitly addiction.” Instead, she studied the pro­teins sur­rounding addiction. 

“I liked the idea of studying pro­teins that had rela­tions to mental health and addiction,” she said.

Since coming to Hillsdale in 2016, she has worked with stu­dents over the summer to conduct experiments.

Many stu­dents who know Kazmier attended the lecture.

Junior Sonya Wirkus has taken two classes with the chem­istry pro­fessor and said “her enthu­siasm in her study is contagious.”

“It’s encour­aging to have pro­fessors like Dr. Kazmier that push us to study the world just because it’s exciting, inter­esting, and beau­tiful,” Wirkus said. “I’m glad that more stu­dents had the oppor­tunity to observe some of that joy and learn a little more about the bio­chem­istry of the brain last Thursday.”

Junior Katie Ingham agreed, calling the lecture “a great example of her ability to example how the minute details of science affect the big picture of what humans experience.”