2012 ASPET Axelrod Awardee
Press Release from ASPET
Gavril W. Pasternak, M.D., Ph.D.

Dr. Gavril Pasternak has been named the 2011 recipient of the Julius Axelrod award in Pharmacology by the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET). Dr. Pasternak holds the Anne Burnett Tandy Chair in Neurology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and is Professor of Neurology & Neuroscience, Pharmacology and Psychiatry at the Weill Medical School of Cornell University. He is recognized for his major contributions into the differential roles of opiate receptor subtypes in relieving pain with diminished side effects.

The late Julius Axelrod, Ph.D. received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1970 for his pioneering discoveries about the catecholamine neurotransmitters which include epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine. In the course of this work he elucidated the mechanism of action of important drugs such as cocaine and the principal antidepressant drugs. He also revolutionized our understanding of the functions of the pineal gland and its hormone melatonin. Besides being one of the 20th century's greatest pharmacologists, Axelrod was renown as a mentor of a generation of researchers who have impacted modern neuropharmacology. Axelrod's legacy is honored by the selection of Professor Pasternak for the 2012 Julius Axelrod Award in Pharmacology.

Throughout his career Pasternak's research has focused upon characterization of opiate receptors. As a graduate student in the Snyder laboratory at Johns Hopkins in the 1970's, he was part of the team that identified and characterized opiate receptors and showed how they mediate the actions of these drugs. In his independent laboratory at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Pasternak focused upon subtypes of opiate receptors. Three principal types of opiate receptors had been discriminated and differentiated by pharmacologic analysis and molecular cloning as mu, delta and kappa, with the mu receptors being the principal mediators of analgesic effects of most opiates. Utilizing both ligand binding and molecular biological techniques, Pasternak uncovered several novel receptors derived by alternative splicing of the mu opiate receptor gene. His discoveries markedly altered our understanding of how opiates act and have led to novel, potent analgesics with markedly reduced side effects. One subtype of opiate receptor discovered by Pasternak responds more effectively to morphine than heroin, while another responds to heroin but not morphine. In recent research, by sculpting molecules selective for receptor subtypes, Pasternak has discovered new opiate drugs that are 100 times more potent than morphine with diminished adverse effects and do not appear to cause physical dependence.

Dr. Pasternak received his Bachelor's degree in chemistry at Johns Hopkins in 1969 where he also obtained his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees and clinical training in neurology. Following completion of his neurology residency Dr. Pasternak joined the faculty of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center where he has remained. His accomplishments have been recognized by numerous awards including the Anne Burnett Tandy Chair in Neurology, the John Bonica Award, the S. Weir Mitchell of the American Academy of Neurology, fellowship in the American Academy of Neurology and election to the Johns Hopkins University Society of Scholars.

The Julius Axelrod Award was established in 1991 by the Catecholamine Club. It recognizes outstanding contributions in research and mentoring in the tradition of Julius Axelrod and presently is awarded under the sponsorship of the American Society of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. Previous winners include Randy D. Blakely, Ph.D. (Vanderbilt University), Palmer W. Taylor, Ph.D. (University of California, San Diego), and Brian K. Kobilka, M.D. (Stanford University).