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2006 Book Commentaries
When she was a graduate student working in a lab at Johns Hopkins, Pert made a discovery that would have significant ramifications in the world of neuroscience: she was able to isolate and identify the "opiate receptor," the site in a cell where opiates such as morphine lock into place and do their chemical work. When Pert set out to find the opiate receptor in 1972, not much was known about receptors for neurochemicals. Her discovery made many later discoveries and observations about the nature of the brain and peptides possible.
Pert was able to isolate the opiate receptor through a manipulation of a pre-existing experiment designed to locate the insulin receptor. In that extant experiment, radioactive "tags" were applied to binding substances and centrifuged with pulverized mouse brains. The resulting concoction was then analyzed—the pre-existing experiment used a "stereoisomer, a synthetic opiate designed specifically in a laboratory and having two mirror-image forms. Both forms have the same chemical structure, but the left-handed version, called levorphanol, is an extremely potent opiate, while the right-handed version, called dextrophan, is almost inert" (1). If the opiate receptor were present, only the potent opiate would bind to the receptor, because it was the one that had the right configuration. The amount of radioactive levorphanol would be higher, indicating a higher ratio of binding compared to the dextrophan, thus also indicating the presence of the opiate receptor. Pert took this experiment, which only yielded a 2% difference in levorphanol and dextrophan and had proved unrepeatable, and created a new story.
Instead of using the stereoisomers, Pert turned to a different set of related molecules: agonists and antagonists. The agonists were drugs that could bind to the receptor and create changes in the cells while the antagonists would merely block the receptor site by occupying it without changing anything. Pert decided that in order to find the opiate receptor, she'd have to use a radioactive antagonist as a way of tracing binding to the receptor. This antagonist would remain in the receptor a longer time, thus allowing the substance to be centrifuged to separate the bound and free drugs from one another. Even though her experiment was due to be shut down, Pert secretly worked on this new "story," eventually achieving indisputable success with the radioactive antagonists, and proving that the opiate receptor did exist.
This discovery led to many other discoveries that challenged established "stories" that the scientific community previously held. Pert's "molecules of emotion," neuropeptides, were found to act on all different aspects of the body including the immune system. There are neuropeptide receptors not only in the brain, but in the immune system as well. In fact, Receptors and the information they receive have, since the 1980s, come to be seen as "the basic units of a language used by cells throughout the organism to communicate across systems such as the endocrine, neurological, gastrointestinal, and even the immune system" (1). Pert's original "story" about the opiate receptor has been expanded and made "less wrong" by many subsequent discoveries. At first, Pert indicates that she was in a rush to be at the front-line of these discoveries, putting her name on every paper that she could. Now, she feels that it is more important that the discoveries be made, and does not care whether she makes them or someone else does. This is a marked change, since in her earlier days, she caused a huge flap over the fact that she was passed over for the Lasker award for her work with the opiate receptor. The award went, instead, to the male head of her lab, and she felt that she was short-changed for her efforts because of her gender. After she decided to go public with this problem, she was much maligned in the scientific community. When her male colleague did not go on to win the Nobel after winning the Lasker, Pert's out-spokenness was singled out and blamed. However, this call for a change to science's "story" was also helpful. As a result, Pert eventually gained greater acceptance and respect as a female scientist in the field. It also gradually taught her about the idea of science for a greater good, rather than for prestige—she was passed over, and she came to terms with that, ultimately deciding it was more important to see how the opiate receptor and other receptors could be used to help those who were suffering from cancer, AIDS, or other seemingly incurable diseases.
This does not fix the fact that some of the book is written in language that seriously undermines Pert's own message of independence and purposefulness. When writing about a meeting with a prominent scientist, she gushes "The experience of being in his presence was near-orgasmic, so powerful was his allure, and my heart pounded wildly as I listened to the conversation, too in awe of this bastion of scientific superstars to say a single word" (1). I could have done with a little less of this type of writing, and a little more of an analysis of how the male "scientific superstar" persona is constructed and perpetuated in our current world. This would perhaps lead to a more constructive examination of how science's (and scientists') stories need to change to accommodate women, and a search for the greater good, rather than a race for superstar status.
Pert is a great proponent of holistic medicine, and her work with receptors has influenced this interest. I feel that this would be in line with the work we've done in class this semester—Pert is seeking a less wrong vision of the world, and in doing so she is listening to other cultures' stories as well. I thought that this part of her book was refreshing, as it made the scientific aspects easier to understand, and also easier to apply to everyday life. She argues for a greater inclusion of spirituality in medicine—the book does have an introduction by Deepak Chopra, after all. Towards the end of the book she observes "My feeling is that there is no scientific reason to leave spirituality out of medicine. ...the truth that I have learned through my own late-twentieth-century science is that soul, mind, and emotions do play an important role in health. What we need is a larger biomedical science to reintegrate what was taken out [with Descartes body/soul split] three hundred years ago" (1). A voice like Dr. Pert's is rare and welcome—coming from extremely Western scientific roots and ending in a much different place, her shift in perspective gives her a greater breadth of knowledge to draw on. She knows that, like the members of our class, she will never get it "right," but she's willing to seek out new stories to get it less wrong along the way.
Pert, Candace B. Why you Feel the Way you Feel: Molecules of Emotion. Scribner: New
York, NY. 1997.
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