Shortly before she entered graduate school at Johns Hopkins University in 1970, Candace Pert broke her back in a riding accident. Dulling the pain from her injury with morphine led her to speculate about how the drug exerted its effects on the brain.
Her graduate advisor, neuroscientist Solomon H. Snyder, set her to searching for an insulin receptor and discouraged her from following her interest in morphine. According to Pert’s account, he ultimately forbade her to attempt to explain morphine’s mechanism of action.
Undeterred, Pert ordered the necessary laboratory materials for her study surreptitiously. She injected morphine labeled with a radioactive atom into brain tissue, then attempted to identify the tissue the morphine bound to.
The key experiment was to be conducted on a Friday evening in 1973 when the lab would be nearly empty, but Pert’s baby-sitter failed to show up. Not to be thwarted, she smuggled her 5-year-old son Evan past guards and set him on a lab bench while she set up the experiment.
When she returned to the laboratory Monday morning, her results showed that she had identified the first opiate receptor in the brain, a finding that opened an entirely new field of studying the biochemistry of the most mysterious of organs.
That discovery won Snyder the 1978 Lasker Award, one of the most prestigious prizes in American medicine and one that is often viewed as a precursor to the Nobel Prize. Ironically, Pert, a mere graduate student, was excluded from the Lasker Award.
Pert, who subsequently achieved fame as a proponent of the emotional component of disease -- the so-called brain-body connection -- died Sept. 12 at her home in Potomac, Md. She was 67 and died of cardiac arrest, according to her family.
In a subsequent interview with the New York Times, Snyder called Pert “one of the most creative, innovative graduate students I had ever mentored.”
Receptors are folded proteins in the body to which small molecules or short peptides bind specifically, much like a specific key fits in a lock. The opiate receptor had been a goal of scientists for many years. But its ultimate discovery raised an intriguing question: Why was it there?
“God presumably did not put an opiate receptor in our brains so that we could ultimately discover how to get high with opium,” Pert told Smithsonian magazine. She and others reasoned that the body must produce a natural chemical similar to morphine, but her search for it proved fruitless and she abandoned it.
In 1975, two Scottish researchers, Hans W. Kosterlitz and John Hughes, identified encephalin, the first of a family of chemicals they named endorphins. These naturally occurring chemicals can relieve pain and create a feeling of euphoria, such as the well-known “runner’s high.”
Kosterlitz and Hughes shared the 1978 Lasker with Snyder. Like many other graduate students, Pert felt that she had unfairly been excluded. But rather than suffering in silence like most, she wrote an angry letter to the journal Science saying that she had “played a key role in initiating the research and following it up.” As a result of this breach of etiquette, she became something of a pariah in her field.
In her subsequent research at the National Institutes of Mental Health and Georgetown University, Pert identified endorphin receptors throughout the body, furthering her conclusion that the brain plays a crucial role in disease. She also isolated receptors for Valium and PCP, or angel dust, in the brain and, with her second husband, Michael R. Ruff, identified peptide T, which has been tested as a potential therapy for HIV infections.
In 2007, Pert, Ruff and another colleague founded Rapid Pharmaceuticals to explore peptide T and other potential treatments for HIV, autism and Alzheimer’s disease.
Candace Dorinda Beebe was born in New York City on June 26, 1946. She enrolled in Hofstra University but dropped out in 1966 when she married Agu Pert. The couple moved to Philadelphia so her husband could pursue his doctorate at Bryn Mawr College. Like many women of her generation, she helped support the family while her husband went to school, taking a job as a cocktail waitress.
One of her customers was an assistant dean at Bryn Mawr, who encouraged her to finish her bachelor’s degree at that institution and helped her enroll. In 1970, she got her bachelor’s in biology and entered the doctoral pharmacology program at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.
Pert wrote more than 250 research papers during her career. She also wrote two popular books for the lay audience: “Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel the Way You Feel,” with Deepak Chopra, and “Everything You Need to Know to Feel Good.” She also appeared in the 1993 PBS series, “Healing and the Mind,” the 2004 movie “What the #$*! Do We Know!?” and the 2009 movie “You Can Heal Your Life.”
Pert is survived by her husband of 27 years, Ruff; her sister, Deane Beebe; three children from her first marriage, Brandon, Evan and Vanessa; and a grandson.