Vol 7. Issue 27 / September 24, 2007

Pearson Family Chair to Support Forward-Looking Alcohol and Addiction Research

By Mika Ono

Endowed chairs bring with them prestige and security, so when Professor Barbara Mason learned she would hold The Pearson Family Chair, a newly endowed position in alcohol and addiction research at The Scripps Research Institute, she was thrilled.

"The chair provides assurance that the team I assembled at The Scripps Research Institute can carry on our exciting work, which has great potential to help people in recovery," says Mason. "As part of the Pearson Center, the chair also gives me the freedom to conduct early proof-of-concept studies and quickly build on preclinical and clinical findings, work that could be delayed for years if we had to wait for National Institutes of Health funding, or never done at all."

The Pearson Family Chair was established with a gift from philanthropist and entrepreneur Mark Pearson, who also established the Pearson Center for Alcoholism and Addiction Research at Scripps Research in 2003. The center, co-directed by Mason and Professor George Koob, combines the latest biomedical research with new clinical treatments to fight the devastating, costly, and deadly disease of alcohol and drug addiction.

At the time of his initial gift, Pearson said, "It is my hope that by generating greater public awareness and additional financial support for biomedical and clinical research, future generations of families will be spared from the devastating affects of alcoholism and addiction."

The recent creation of an endowed chair is unusual in the field of alcohol and addiction research, and may have broad repercussions.

"I think other philanthropists and academic institutions will sit up and take note," says Mason. "In addition, a gift like this helps attract young people to the field, because it sends the message that this important work is recognized."

Toward Better Options

Researchers at the Pearson Center seek to complement traditional treatments to alcoholism, such as group therapy and psychological counseling, by better understanding the physiology of the brain.

In response to findings that individuals in recovery suffer from dysregulation of reward and stress systems, Pearson Center researchers (including postdocs supported by the center) have been investigating the viability of using new compounds to reduce the neurological effects of alcohol, diminish excessive intake, and prevent relapse. One example of an existing medication based on this approach is Forest Pharmaceutical Inc.'s acamprosate (Campral), approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2004, based in part on the first U.S. trial of acamprosate for which Mason served as overall principal investigator.

"Our position is that medication is not a cure, a silver bullet, or the whole solution," says Mason. "However, it can offer support while the person consolidates an alcohol-free lifestyle. This applies to cannabis and tobacco as well, although these are usually less immediately life-threatening."

Mason adds that medication has the potential to be a timely addition to the current range of treatment options for alcohol dependence. Not everyone has the time, money, or insurance coverage for the recommended 28 days of inpatient rehabilitation with round- the-clock supervision, and medication could offer an alternative requiring less inpatient support. Although 28-day treatment centers have helped a lot of people, the relapse rates remain high, some 50 percent three months after completion, according to Mason.

At the Pearson Center, Mason and Koob work closely together, with Mason's lab focusing on human studies, and Koob's on preclinical work. The collaboration benefits both groups, with new information feeding back into both research programs.

Mason and Koob began collaborating years ago, in part as a result of their mutual interest in the negative affect that tends to accompany withdrawal. One of Mason's early studies looked at the relationship between depression and recovery from alcohol dependence, finding that individuals were more likely to relapse if they were also depressed. 

"The establishment of the Pearson Chair for Dr. Mason provides an extraordinary opportunity for The Scripps Research Institute to exploit its rich resources for translational advances in diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of the devastating brain disease of addiction," Koob says. "The generosity and foresight of Mr. Pearson in establishing the Pearson Center and Pearson Chair are greatly appreciated and have provided the foundation for an exciting research program dedicated to the development of novel treatments for addiction."

Benefiting the Community

Mason, who received her undergraduate degree from the Pratt Institute and Ph.D. from Long Island University, was drawn to the field of addiction and alcohol research because she felt she could make a difference.

"It is hard to find anyone who has not been touched by the disease," she says. "There's a lot of gratification in providing support to people who are seeking help and in seeing how the benefits of the work affect the community."

Mason notes the society-wide impact of alcoholism, especially given the devastating consequences of drunk driving and fetal alcohol syndrome.

Prior to joining Scripps Research in 2002, Mason held a faculty position at the University of Miami School of Medicine for 12 years and at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University for 10 years. She received adjunct appointments at the University of Miami School of Medicine, The Rockefeller University, and the University of California, San Diego. Her honors include the Dean's Senior Clinical Research Award from the University of Miami School of Medicine, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Teacher-Scientist Award from Cornell University Medical College.

Mason has served as field editor for the drugs and alcohol sections of Neuropsychopharmacology and as a member of the editorial boards of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, Journal of Substance Abuse, and the Journal of Addiction Medicine. In addition, she has worked on the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) National Advisory Council, its Clinical and Treatment Subcommittee Initial Review Group, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Government Performance and Results Act Review Group, as well as serving as a guest expert for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and as a consultant to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Shortly after Mason arrived at Scripps Research, Mark Pearson established the Pearson Center, at first making his $3 million gift anonymously then stepping forward to help underline the importance of alcoholism and addiction research.

Pearson, a leader in Silicon Valley commercial real estate, is a managing partner at CresaPartners, a national corporate real estate company with 26 offices. Pearson is also co-founder and managing partner of Drawbridge Partners, a real estate development and investment company.

Pearson has also founded companies including Lifespring Health, a program that helps people reduce the cost of health insurance and health and wellness expenses, and Annex Ventures, a venture capital firm focused on providing early-stage financing for technology and biotechnology companies.

In addition to support from the Pearson Center, Mason's research is funded in part by the NIH.

An NIH MERIT grant supports a study evaluating two contrasting medication strategies relative to placebo for assisting individuals with alcohol dependence. This research may also shed light on whether lab tests can be predictive of results in the clinic, information potentially offering guidance to health care providers about which medications are of most use for which patient profiles. Other current NIH-funded work focuses on medication development for cannabis-related disorders and the development of models to rapidly screen medications for their potential to treat alcohol dependence.

While Mason recognizes the importance of NIH funding, she remains effusive in her appreciation of Mark Pearson's support.

"Mark's commitment to us is wonderful," she says. "The Pearson Center often lets us establish a proof-of-concept, gathering pilot data, so we can apply for an NIH grant. Then, once we have promising results, the center gives us the confidence that good work can be taken the distance, all the way to the clinic."

For more information on the Pearson Center for Alcoholism and Addiction Research, visit http://www.pearsoncenter.org/.


Send comments to: mikaono[at]scripps.edu




"It is hard to find anyone who has not been touched by the disease [of alcoholism]," says Barbara Mason, who has been appointed to the Pearson Family Chair. Photo by Michael Balderas.