By Jason Socrates
In a 1991 address to the Association of Neuroscience Departments
and Programs, Professor Floyd Bloom, who is chair of the Department
of Neuropharmacology at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI),
remarked, "Maintaining the highest possible level of talented
researchers relies critically on the ability to recruit, train,
and retain the best young students to the neurosciences."
And if that address voiced Bloom's commitment to the next
generation of neuroscientists, his work as chairman of the
Department of Neuropharmacology embodies it. Since its founding
in 1989, the department has grown steadily in both size and
stature. It now occupies over 60,000 square feet of laboratory
space in several of the buildings across campus and has nearly
300 employeesfaculty, students, post-docs, and staff.
The department is currently one of the world's leading centers
for research aimed at understanding the interaction of such
factors as viruses, drugs, or chemicals upon neuronal activity.
"I don't have to set the pacewe have a lot of distinguished
senior investigators, younger people, and newly arriving [scientists]
who are expanding the department," says Bloom.
What Bloom does do is to encourage an entrepreneurial spirit
among the department's investigators to turn basic discoveries,
particularly those that are involved with the human genome,
into biotechnological productstools and drugs that will
have a positive effect on human health.
"The idea is to make a discovery that is useful and turn
it into a diagnostic or an application or a way of life that
will keep you healthy," he says. "The medications of the future,
in my view, will be medications that keep you on the healthy
side before you happen to get symptoms because it's harder
to get rid of things once they've started."
A Prescribed Course
While it is not quite accurate to say that Bloom was born
into medicine, it is fair to say that he was born around
medicine. In Minnesota, where Bloom grew up, his father ran
a pharmacy. As a boy, Bloom spent many hours working for his
fatherrunning deliveries, doing chores, and working
Later, his father would play a pivotal role in his decision
to attend medical school at Washington University. "For my
father, being a doctor was the highest calling you could haveit
meant independence of mind and independence of choice," recalls
Bloom. "He wanted me to be a physician."
While in medical school, Bloom studied membrane biophysics
and neuropharmacology along the way to what he thought would
be a career in internal medicine and the pharmacology of hypertension.
But he never made it out of the laboratory. In his early career,
he focused on the brain monoamine systems (which includes
norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin), characterizing their
cellular actions, mapping out their synaptic sites, determining
their post-natal development, and looking at the functional
properties of the systems in attention, sleep, and waking
behaviors. Later, he spent several years devoted to comparable
studies on neuropeptides, cellular functional data, and mapping
data for the opioid peptidessomatostatin, vasoactive
intestinal polypeptide, and neuropeptide Y.
He was drawn to neuroscience as a way to address some of
the most pressing conditions, like schizophrenia, depression,
drug abuse, and alcoholism. "There weren't many medications
that were prescribed when I was growing up that were useful
for mental illness," he recalls. "Sedatives were about the
best we had."
Today, good therapeutics are available to treat several
of these conditions, but there is a great need for more.
Antidepressants, for instance, make up one of the largest
markets in the United States, netting billions of dollars
in annual sales. However, one out of every ten Americans suffers
from some form of major depression. And there is still a great
need for a fast-acting antidepressant (normal antidepressants
take two or three weeks to take effect). This is problematic
because the core symptom of serious depression is suicidal
tendencies. In 1997, for instance, 30,535 Americans committed
suicide, making it the eighth leading cause of death in the
United States that year.
Alcoholism continues to be a major problem in the United
States as well. The direct and indirect public health costs
of alcoholism are estimated to be in the hundreds of billions
of dollars yearly. More than half a million Americans die
each year from smoking-related illnesses. And more than three
quarters of a million people in this country have AIDS, which
can have deleterious effects on the brain.
One of the problems with developing drugs to treat many
neurological conditions is the incredible difficulty of doing
basic research on the brain. In a 1991 lecture to the American
College of Neuropsychopharmacology (Bloom was president of
this body from 1988 to 1990), Bloom pointed to a 1990 study
that had found that basic, preclinical research seemed to
contribute less to the development of psychiatric drugs than
to anesthetic or cardiovascular drugs.
Bloom remarked in his lecture that this was probably due
to the fact that basic science lacks good animal models for
many psychiatric conditions, which would allow scientists
to study the details of normal and pathological brain states
Under Bloom's leadership, TSRI's Department of Neuropharmacology
has spent a considerable amount of time and effort developing
animal models of addiction, alcoholism, and viral pathogenesis,
amongst others, and a number of neuropharmacology investigators
are working to develop further models of major psychiatric
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"I don't have to set the pace-we have
a lot of distinguished senior investigators, younger people,
and newly arriving [scientists] who are expanding the department,"
says Professor Floyd Bloom, chair of TSRI's Department of
Neuropharmacology. Photo by