Candace Pert, Ph.D.
June 26, 1946 – Sept. 12, 2013
On a Friday evening in 1973 Candace Pert, a pharmacology graduate assistant at John Hopkins University, crept into the university lab of her supervisor, neuroscientist Sol Snyder, and injected morphine tagged with a radioactive tracer into the brain tissue of a mouse.
Within a couple days she realized she’d identified the first opiate receptor in the brain, the cellular bonding site for endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, which she called our “underlying mechanism for bliss and bonding.” This breakthrough presaged a sea change in scientific understanding of human internal communication systems, pointing the way toward the information-based model that is now supplanting the long-dominant structuralist viewpoint.
She didn’t get credit for the discovery.
After taking her Ph.D. in 1974 she moved to the National Institutes of Health, where she rose to become head of the brain chemistry department at the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health. In her work there she went on to identify endorphin receptors throughout the body and to show that a variety of proteins known as peptides (including endorphins) are key “information substances” which can affect our mind, our emotions, our immune system, our digestion and other bodily functions, helping to found a field of science known as psychoneuroimmunology.
In 1986, the year before she left the NIH, she and her second husband, Michael Ruff, identified Peptide-T, a substance which they felt had potential as a therapy for people infected with HIV. In 1987 she founded a company to study peptides in more detail, which closed in 1990 after financial backing fell through.
From 1990 to 2006 Candace Pert was a professor in the department of physiology at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, DC. In 2007 she and her husband founded another company, Rapid Pharmaceuticals, to develop new peptide-based drugs and were used in trials in San Francisco for the treatment of AIDS and neuroAIDS.
She also researched the relationship between the nervous and immune systems, developing documentation of a body-wide communication system mediated by peptide molecules and their receptors, which she perceives to be the biochemical basis of emotion and the potential key to many of the most challenging diseases of our time. In 1997 she wrote and published the book Molecules of Emotion. Over the course of her career she published over 250 scientific articles on peptides and their receptors and the role of these neuropeptides in the immune system. She took out a number of patents for modified peptides in the treatment of psoriasis, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, stroke, and head trauma.
She died at home at age 67.