AUSTIN, Texas — Dr. R. Adron Harris, one of the world’s foremost experts in the genetics of alcoholism, is joining The University of Texas at Austin College of Natural Sciences. Harris has been awarded the M. June and J. Virgil Waggoner Chair in Molecular Biology and will head the Center for the Study of Alcohol and Drug Dependence, beginning Sept. 1.
Most recently a professor of pharmacology at the University of Colorado Health Science Center, Harris is leaving the nation’s No. 1 department of pharmacology in terms of National Institute of Health research funding to accept the UT post.
Awarded the prestigious MERIT Award in 1989 by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), Harris has pushed the frontier of knowledge about addiction in new directions. Harris and his research associates examine the molecular basis of nerve cell sensitivity to both alcohol and anesthetics.
Recent research suggests that the sedative and pleasurable effects of alcohol occur through different biochemical pathways, perhaps explaining why individuals prone to alcohol abuse often are less sensitive than average to the drug’s sedative side effects. By focusing on the molecular reasons why people vary in their tolerance for alcohol, Harris’ research may suggest possibilities for intervention in the disease and will add an additional dimension to the study of alcoholism and addiction at UT Austin.
“Dr. Harris’ acceptance of the College of Natural Sciences position provides a nucleus around which the University’s broad research initiatives will undoubtedly coalesce,” said College of Natural Sciences Dean Mary Ann Rankin. “We are very pleased that Dr. Harris has chosen UT as the university where he will continue his exceptional work.”
A recent $5 million gift by June and Virgil Waggoner of Houston for the study of molecular genetics of alcoholism at UT paved the way for the Harris offer.
Said UT President Larry R. Faulkner, “Dr. Harris is a distinguished scholar who is very widely respected for his work. The University of Texas at Austin is committed to understanding the disease of alcoholism, and Dr. Harris will provide the leadership for UT to succeed in this area.” It is the University’s intention to match the Waggoner’s gift by raising an additional $5 million to support alcohol and drug dependence investigation.
“The combination of public and private funds is almost unheard of in alcohol research, and is vitally important for several reasons,” said Harris. “First, the resources pave the way for new advances in molecular biology, pushing the science forward. And it makes Texas a leader, breaking through the social barriers that kept funding for alcoholism research historically at such a low level.” The economic impact of alcoholism is estimated to be $146 billion annually, yet federal funding for alcoholism research is among the lowest for any public health problem in the United States.
Dr. Harris has published more than 225 scholarly articles based on his research. He has served on the Medical Advisory Council of the Alcohol Beverage Medical Research Foundation and the NIAAA Grant Review Board. He also was the director of the University of Colorado Alcohol Research Center and Scientific Director of the Denver VA Alcoholism Research Center.
UT is one of 30 universities in the country to have received an NIAAA Training Grant, promoting cross-disciplinary research among the Colleges of Natural Sciences, Pharmacy and Liberal Arts to study the disease of alcoholism. Research into the social causes and consequences of alcohol abuse is underway at the College of Communications and the School of Social Work.