Cloning opioid receptors to better understand our brain

French scientist Brigitte Kieffer made an outstanding contribution to science when she successfully cloned and sequenced a gene encoding an opioid receptor. These receptors located in the brain can reduce pain, generate pleasure and help to cope with stress. They can be activated by drugs, thus causing addictions. A better knowledge of the way they function can help scientists understand addictions, mood troubles and mental illnesses.

Why do we feel pain and how do certain substances alleviate or induce those feelings? The opioid receptors in our brains are central to these processes. Brigitte Kieffer is the first to have isolated the gene for one of these key receptors. Her discovery enabled us to comprehend how substances like morphine or heroin (the active ingredients in opium) can kill pain and, in some cases, create addiction.

"I chose science because that’s where the excitement seemed to be."

Her findings have led to the development of new analgesic medicines and new treatments for addiction. As disorders of the opioid system are involved in emotional problems such as anxiety and severe depression (which affects one in ten people), her work has also had implications for psychiatry. In the words of Professor Kieffer, “Mental illnesses are biological illnesses. The brain is an organ, certainly a highly complex and fascinating one, but like every other organ in the human body, it can be treated.”

Science without Borders

She believes science is facing a two-fold challenge. The first is the scarcity of funds for fundamental research. The second concerns the interface between the life sciences. Her own research is at the crossroads between genetics, chemistry, behavioral sciences and medicine and she is firmly convinced that scientists must work across disciplines in order to find answers. “Now, as never before, we have to think out of the box. Researchers should have more opportunities to look outside their own fields, more worldwide networks between scientists in different areas of study should be established and resources must be allocated to finance these forms of collaboration.”

The Thrill of Discovery, the Rewards of Perseverance

Professor Kieffer says that on arriving at university she had no clear idea of what it would actually mean to be a researcher, but she has always felt the need to understand and to learn. “I chose science because that’s where the excitement seemed to be.” She hasn’t lost an iota of her contagious enthusiasm and describes one eureka moment—when she discovered the answer to a key question that had baffled neuroscientists around the world for fifteen years—as “the biggest thrill of my life!”

All in all, though, she warns that “being creative, brainstorming and playing with ideas,” is the “fun” part of science. Progress at the experimental level is always extremely slow, which requires self-confidence, perseverance and ambition. True for all researchers, but perhaps more so for women, since Professor Kieffer believes that a lack of confidence may be what keeps some members of her gender away from science. Which, however, is not their fault. “Women can do at least as well as men in science, if not better. The only problem is that, until recently, no one’s ever told them so!”

More information about Brigitte Kieffer :

For Women in Science

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