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Laura Bohn

Searching for Better Pain Treatments

As a professor in the Department of Molecular Therapeutics at Scripps Florida, Laura Bohn, an internationally known researcher, is focused on basic laboratory research—but she keeps an eye on potential practical applications as well.

"Knowing how something works is very satisfying, but I want to see something come of it," she said.

The proteins that Bohn is studying do have a practical side. Known as “G protein-coupled receptors” or GPCRs, they are critical to how patients respond to more than one third of existing therapeutic drugs—including pain treatments, which are what Bohn would like to find a way to improve.

"Historically, we have always looked at drug effects on receptors in the body as a whole," said Bohn. "What has never been fully appreciated is that receptors may act differently in different organs, say in the brain versus the gut. We now realize that if we could make a drug like morphine act differently in the brain than it does in the gut, we could get pain relief without certain side effects, such as constipation."

It's a complicated and difficult process, something that Bohn has been working on since early in her career.

"There have been attempts to modify morphine since the 1900s," she said, "and these compounds turned out to have many of the same problems as morphine itself. We need to figure out how to make new compounds that maintain potency for pain relief, but without side effects."

The field of pain relief is a very big place to go looking for something—and a big effort is being made. As she searches for answers, Bohn keeps in mind that the field is constantly shifting.

“Biology doesn't really play by the rules as much as we think it does,” she said. “Or maybe it's that the rules aren't as solid as we think they are—they're much more fluid."

It’s a perspective that has worked well for her in her own scientific career.

After graduating from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 1993 with dual bachelor's degrees in biochemistry and chemistry, Bohn was awarded her Ph.D. from Saint Louis University in biochemistry and molecular biology. She held a postdoctoral fellowship at Duke University then joined the faculty at the Ohio State University College of Medicine.

She arrived at Scripps Florida in 2009.

"When I started graduate school, I was interested in the neurochemistry of the brain, that what you ingest can influence thought and perception,” she said. “That's still the fundamental question. Right now, I want to understand the line between paired realities—on one side, opiates are good because they block pain, while on the other, opiates are bad because they cause so many side effects. That poses an endless line of questions. It's a very deep well."

Since coming to Jupiter, she has done a superb job of dipping into it.

In 2009, she was awarded the 2009 Joseph Cochin Young Investigator Award for her outstanding early achievements in the field of drug abuse. The award, which is sponsored by The College on Problems of Drug Dependence, is given annually to a scientist under the age of 40.

Just two years later, she was given the prestigious John J. Abel Award. The award, named after the founder of the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, is given each year to a single outstanding young investigator for his or her contributions to pharmacology.

Perhaps more important than the awards, Bohn and her colleagues recently developed drug candidates that move forward the search for new treatments for pain, addiction and other disorders. Bohn intends to keep looking until she finds the answers we need.

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"Knowing how something works is very satisfying, but I want to see something come of it," says Professor Laura Bohn.