Finding Inspiration at Home
Recently married and the father of an infant son, Ed Roberts had a newly minted PhD and a job teaching Chemistry at the University of Wales, Cardiff, when his life changed dramatically. At 18 months, his son Oliver developed a hepatoma of the liver and Roberts and his wife rushed the boy to London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for treatment. There, they spent days and nights on the childhood cancer ward.
“At night, the children were crying, screaming throughout the night. They were in pain,” Roberts says. “Sleeping on the ward every night made me think, ‘Why aren’t these children being treated adequately? And I thought to myself, ‘If nobody is doing anything for them, then you’ve got to do it yourself.”
With his son thankfully recovering, Roberts decided to make a career move and sought a job at the Parke-Davis Neuroscience Research Center at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge because the center was working in the area of pain. Each step of his career since then has been driven by his goal of discovering and developing therapeutic agents that will help people, most especially children.
Drawn by the freedom of exploration and the intellectual capital at Scripps Research, Roberts joined the faculty in 2005 as Professor of Translational Chemistry and Medicine. Now, his work focuses on central nervous system disorders, cancer, autoimmune diseases, and autism.
“We are targeting medicines for diseases for which there is clearly a need,” Roberts explains, “and one of the great things about being an academic is that we’re able to try things that are riskier than a pharmaceutical company could. Without that leap of faith, you’ll never take medicine to the next level.”
Following through on an idea that came to him while at Great Ormond Street Hospital, Roberts has more recently been working to develop a pain-relieving agent that doesn’t carry the negative effects of morphine. Not only is morphine open for abuse as a narcotic, but also a patient with chronic pain like a cancer patient becomes tolerant to it over time. Increased doses bring only small increases in pain relief, yet come with considerable increases in side effects like constipation and depression.
Knowing that the peptide hormone cholecystokinin (CCK) is believed to play a major role in inducing drug tolerance to opioids like morphine, Roberts’s team has combined a CCK antagonist (a receptor-blocker) with a morphine-like compound and found that the molecule can prevent and even reverse tolerance in animal models. “This could be a pain-reliever with no abuse liability. What potential!” says Roberts.
Another area of Roberts’s research at Scripps Research – autism – is also fueled by his personal experience. Roberts’s other two sons, Elliott and Owain, were born with Asperger syndrome. Autism, which touches one in every 150 births and affects males more than females to the tune of four to one, affects a person’s ability to form relationships and interact socially.
Roberts and his team are zeroing in on two neuropeptides that have been shown to have an effect on social awareness. “Vasopresson, which is also responsible for blood pressure regulation, among other things, is seemingly very important in males for social interaction,” Roberts explains, “and in females it’s oxytocin.” Because of vassopresson’s association with blood pressure, a drug company wouldn’t pursue this type of research, but Roberts believes that he may be able to find a way to direct a compound to the necessary site without it entering systemic circulation, thereby avoiding the risk associated with blood pressure. “We need to get a proof-of-concept molecule,” Roberts says. “The information from that would be so huge, it would help the cause for all autistic children.”
It is this ability to pursue lines of inquiry without direct sight on a workable drug that is critical to building the base of biomedical knowledge. Ed Roberts and his team know why they come to work every day. Your gift can help ensure that they have the resources and the freedom to fulfill their mission.