A pioneering Johns Hopkins neuroscientist has won the country's most lucrative biomedical research prize for work on cellular communication that helped revolutionize drug development.
Dr. Solomon H. Snyder, who founded Johns Hopkins School of Medicine's neuroscience department, was one of three scientists awarded the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research.
The researchers, who all made groundbreaking discoveries on how cells communicate with their environment through molecular receptors, will split the $500,000 prize.
The researchers will receive the prize today at an awards ceremony at Albany Medical Center in Albany, N.Y.
Scientists said Snyder's work was key to understanding the functioning of the brain and how hormones and drugs act on it.
"He is really one of the giants in neuroscience," said Bradley E. Alger, a neuroscience professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "The guy is a mega- genius."
Snyder made his seminal discovery in 1973 by finding the molecules in the brain that responded to opiates such as morphine and heroin.
The receptors are embedded on the exterior surface of brain cells and cause changes in the cells' functioning - and subsequently brain function - when they come in contact with compounds like morphine.
Before this, scientists theorized that such a "lock-and-key" relationship existed - where a receptor on a cell would respond only to certain kinds of free-floating molecules - but they had no concrete proof.
"He took the concept of receptors and pushed it to all sorts of levels," said Alger.
By showing that drugs act on cellular receptors to create physiological effect - pain relief, in the case of morphine - Snyder demonstrated the importance of the receptors.
Taking the concept a step further he mapped the locations of the opiate receptors in the brain, discovering they are highly concentrated in the pleasure centers.
"Then we could understand what they do," Snyder explained yesterday. "Opiates make you feel good because the pleasure centers of the brain were loaded with them."
Using the same techniques, Snyder went on to identify the receptors for nearly all of the major neurotransmitters, the molecules the brain uses to communicate between cells.
That work led to new classes of anti-psychotic drugs and pain relievers and along with the work of the other two award recipients revolutionized drug development.
"Half of the drugs used in medicine act by stimulating or blocking receptors," Snyder said. "The whole pharmaceutical industry altered their way of producing agents."
Lefkowitz's and Evans' work also focused on cellular receptors. In the mid-1980s, Lefkowitz and colleagues cloned the gene that produces the receptors for noradrenaline and adrenaline, hormones key to the body's "fight-or-flight" response.
Around the same time, Evans discovered a key receptor inside cells - known as the nuclear hormone receptor - that plays a key role in controlling cellular processes.
Snyder founded the neuroscience department at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1980 and over the years has donated nearly $30 million to it. He also founded Nova Pharmaceuticals, which was later purchased by Scios, a California biotech company in 1992.
He stepped down as department chairman last fall but continues to do research about cellular receptors.
"It's very exciting," he said of winning the award from Albany Medical Center. He said he hadn't given much thought to what to do with his portion of the $500,000.