Despite the opioid overdose crisis, cocaine remains a widely abused illicit drug by the public and by veterans. While opioid overdose primarily causes respiratory failure, cocaine abuse is mainly associated with cardiovascular (CV) toxicities, which include hypertension (HTN), aortic stiffness, and atherosclerosis. Indeed, cocaine abuse represents a significant CV risk for the general population and for veterans. It is known that cocaine stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) by inhibiting norepinephrine (NE) reuptake at nerve terminals; however, recent evidence suggests that inhibition of NE reuptake may not be the major driver of cocaine-induced HTN. As such, the mechanisms mediating the effects of cocaine on the CV system remain largely unknown. To that end, we recently performed small RNA and RNA sequencing in the aortas from mice treated with cocaine, cocaine methiodide (CM, which does not enter the central nervous system), or saline to identify potential microRNA (miR)?mRNA pathways that mediate the CV effects of cocaine. Nine miR?mRNA pathways were implicated. We prioritized and identified two miR- mRNA axes based on their levels of expression changes and relevance to CV physiology. They are: 1) the ?miR-30c??Malic Enzyme 1 (ME1)??reactive oxygen species (ROS) activity, which is crucial in HTN and vascular aging (aortic stiffness); and 2) the ?miR-423??Cacna2d2 (encoding the ?2?-2 subunit of voltage-dependent calcium channels) ??calcium influx resulting in increased intracellular calcium concentration ([Ca2+]i) which is critical in controlling vascular smooth muscle cell (SMC) contractility and blood pressure (BP). We thoroughly investigated the miR-30c pathway and recently published our findings in the journal Hypertension. In preliminary studies, we showed that cocaine- and CM-induced silencing of miR-423-5p expression and subsequent upregulation of Cacna2d2 led to increased [Ca2+]i, which augmented contractility in cultured SMCs. Furthermore, miR-423-5p overexpression ameliorated cocaine-induced BP elevation in vivo. Interestingly, miR-423-5p has been associated with heart failure and coronary artery disease. Its role in the pathogenesis of HTN remains unknown. Based on our published work and preliminary studies, we hypothesize that the miR-423?Cacna2d2 axis plays an important role in cocaine-induced HTN by regulating calcium influx and intracellular calcium concentrations ([Ca2+]i) in vascular cells. In addition, recent studies support a strong crosstalk between these two biological processes?Ca2+ signaling and ROS. We have pilot data showing that modification of both miR axes largely abrogated cocaine-induced SMC contraction. Therefore, we further hypothesize that these two pathways work synergistically to mediate cocaine-induced CV consequences. We will thoroughly characterize the ?miR-423-5p? ?Cacna2d2?? [Ca2+]i axis and its interaction with the ?miR-30c??ME1??ROS pathway in mediating the effects of cocaine on the CV system by using complimentary and vertically integrated in vitro, ex vivo, and in vivo models. In addition, we will measure NE and its metabolite levels, as well as use Prazosin (an ?-blocker) to block the effects of NE in the in vivo experiments, aiming to characterize the potential interplay between the miR-mRNA axes and SNS in mediating the CV effects of cocaine.

Public Health Relevance

Veterans of war are more prone to be affected by depression, chronic fatigue and anxiety. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common among former soldiers who have experienced traumatic battlefield combat experiences, such as witnessing suffering and death. Although there are several factors that predict the severity of symptoms and recovery, PTSD is undoubtedly a widespread condition among soldiers. Research suggests that there is a specific link between PTSD and cocaine abuse and that patient treatment should approach both disorders in order to be successful. This proposal focuses on characterizing the molecular mechanisms involved in the effects of cocaine in the cardiovascular system. This will help inform patient care and facilitate the development of novel therapeutic treatments for cocaine-induced cardiovascular toxicities for veterans in particular, among whom cocaine abuse is more prevalent.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Veterans Affairs (VA)
Non-HHS Research Projects (I01)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZRD1)
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Miami VA Health Care System
United States
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