Building Neuropharmacology

By Jason Socrates Bardi

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 employees—faculty, 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 pace—we 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 products—tools 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 father—running deliveries, doing chores, and working the register.

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 have—it 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 peptides—somatostatin, 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 in vivo.

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 conditions.


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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 Mark Datsrup.