The story of endorphins—the body’s own morphine.
“Fascinating.” The New Yorker
The exciting story of the race to discover endorphins—opiate-like chemicals in the brain—and their links to:
In late 1973, scientists John Hughes and Hans Kosterlitz spent the majority of their time in an underfunded, obscure, and cramped laboratory in Aberdeen, Sweden. While working on the brains of pigs, the duo discovered a nonaddictive narcotic chemical that they hoped to later find in human brains. If they could isolate this chemical in humans, perhaps they could find a way to help the world begin to heal itself. Hughes and Kosterlitz’s research would inevitably lead them to discover endorphins, the body’s own natural morphine and the chemical that makes it possible to feel both pain and pleasure.
Announcing their findings to the scientific world thrust Hughes and Kosterlitz in the spotlight and made them celebrities. Soon, scientists all over the world were hastily examining the human brain and its endorphins. In a few years’ time, they would use the team’s initial research to link endorphins to drug addiction, runner’s high, appetite control, sexual response, and mental illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia.
In Anatomy of a Scientific Discovery, Jeff Goldberg describes Hughes and Kosterlitz’s lives before, during, and after their historic and scientific breakthrough. He also takes a look at the bigger picture, revealing the brutal competition between drug companies to find a way to cash in on this monumental discovery.
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About the Author
Jeff Goldberg’s on-the-scene account of the discovery of endorphins in Anatomy of a Scientific Discovery established him as a leading science writer. His articles on topics ranging from the controversy of fetal cell transplantation to the amazing minds of infants appeared in Life, Discover, Omni, and other magazines internationally. Goldberg is the author of Flowers in the Blood: The Story of Opium, and the novel Notes on a Bamboo Flute. He resides in South Orange, New Jersey.
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In Aberdeen, on the northeast coast of Scotland, winter begins in early October and does not let up until May, or so it seems. On most days it rains.
In the fall of 1973 the old fishing and textile manufacturing city was being transformed into a kind of American frontier town by the discovery of offshore oil. Texas oilmen roamed the streets in ten-gallon hats and cowboy boots, and the young men who worked the rigs came into town on the weekends like western movie extras, their pockets stuffed with cash, to drink and brawl themselves into oblivion. Oil was bringing prosperity and development to Aberdeen; new office buildings and shops were springing up among the grim granite edifices.
All the buildings in and around Aberdeen were made of granite mined from a nearby quarry — the building code of the "granite city" is still very strict in this regard. The stone sparkled with silica when the sun was shining, but on Union Street, Aberdeen's historic main street, it was dull, dark, and gray at four o'clock in the morning.
The sidewalks were wet and empty, the store windows unlit and gated, as John Hughes rolled through the predawn blackness, pedaling a push-crate bicycle that resembled an ice cream vendor's.
Hughes was thirty years old, a short, slight, bespectacled man, who was booking-looking except for his swollen hands, which looked like the hands of a boxer or a murderer — flecks of blood had crusted under the cuticles and faintly stained his knuckles and fingertips. Most of his head was obscured by an orange woolen balaclava helmet that his wife, Mandy, had given him on the Christmas past.
Hughes turned left on Broad Street into the shadows of Marishal College, where he stopped, slipped into the building, and silently made his way to his third-floor laboratory to collect what he needed: a supply of small plastic ziplock bags, a white lab coat, a gore-splotched hacksaw and hatchet, a short wooden-handled knife purchased at Woolworth's, and a bottle of Scotch whisky.
With everything safely stowed in the crate on the front of his bicycle, he pedaled toward the Market Street docks. The wind bit at his face, and his glasses misted as he jolted over the wet cobblestones. The fishing fleet was casting off, so Prince Edward quay was a site of bustling activity in the otherwise sleeping city. Gulls swooped in the wake of the boats and fought over the leavings of yesterday's catch.
Hughes stopped his bike at a warehouse, the owner of which reluctantly sold him a single block of dry ice, which normally could only be purchased in lots of ten. Hughes loaded the dry ice into the crate and pedaled slowly uphill, back past the Marks & Spencer department store on George Street. His final destination was still a mile away.
In 1908 the "killin" house on the corner of George and Hutchinson streets first opened for business. The date was inscribed in the high granite walls above a wooden gate, along with the crest of the Butchers Guild — an axe, three knives, a castle — and its motto, Virtute vivo: "I live virtuously." This was the place where local farmers brought their pigs and sheep for slaughter, and the place John Hughes had come to collect his pig brains. The stone holding pens, pits, and the shelters for the workers had been constructed at the turn of the century, as had the floor of stone tiles — which covered part of the open field — and the system of drains and sewers beneath them, which washed away the blood. The chains and pulleys and meathooks on overhead tracks were a more recent addition. There was no roof, and from the second floor windows on George Street the slaughtering process, as it proceeded through the morning, was inescapably visible.
Animals shuffled restlessly inside their wooden stalls while the butchers stood in groups near the warming wood fires, on which cauldrons of water boiled. They talked in thick Scots accents, smoked cigarettes, and drank coffee; Hughes knew he must have seemed a weird bird to them: the little man who arrived every couple of days on a push-crate bicycle, put on a white lab coat, and spent the morning packing pig brains in dry ice.
To Hughes the pig brains were an absolute necessity. He needed a lot of them, and here they were free. He had tried explaining to the butchers that he was looking for a chemical in those pig brains, a chemical that resembled drugs derived from the opium poppy — a natural "morphine" produced from within the animal's own body that might, someday, unlock the mysteries of safe relief for human pain. A few of the butchers pretended to catch on, but Hughes quickly realized that gifts of whisky and a little money proved more effective tools of diplomacy than all his mad-sounding explanations.
He had been more successful communicating with the local veterinarian, the health inspector, and the supervisor of the abattoir, who were required by law to approve of the project before Hughes could begin work. Not that they really understood what he was talking about either, but they were willing to waive the meat-packing laws of the city in the interest of providing a few pig brains for science, especially since Scottish cuisine, for all its odd turns, did not run to pig brains.
When the killing started, Hughes stationed himself near the area where the pigs were corralled, on a stone bench under one of the shelters, out of the perpetual rain. One by one the animals were driven with sticks and electric prods into a narrow stone enclosure where a man stood poised, slightly above them, with a rifle. The huge, grunting creatures snorted menacingly at first, but as panic began to take hold, their squeals became high-pitched, human-sounding. A single bullet exploded down and through the frontal lobes of each animal's brain and out the throat, dispatching it almost instantly. Fortunately for Hughes, the likeliest sources of the chemical he was after, the mid and back portions of the brain, were left intact.
The dead animals were hoisted up on pulleys, plunged into a vat of boiling water to loosen their hides, then fastened by their hind legs to a hook on a moving track. One of the men worked a chainsaw as the bloody carcasses clattered down the line, spilling guts in the mud, toward the bench where Hughes sat.
If Hughes's bribes had been successful — and if there was enough time — the butcher sliced off the pig's head with a single swipe of the chainsaw and nonchalantly brought it over. If the butcher was too busy, Hughes hacksawed the head off himself, carrying the grisly prize back to his bench. Seated again, he hatcheted the head open, reached in, and severed the brain with his Woolworths knife. It took about ten minutes of manipulation to free the grapefruit-sized brain from the thick, sharp bone fragments of the skull, and by the time he finished, his hands were covered with grazes and cuts.
He dropped each brain into one of his plastic bags, placed it on the dry ice in the crate of his bicycle, and returned to his bench to repeat the procedure. The butcher lined up fresh heads, which Hughes would toss aside when he finished with them. By the end of the morning a pile of twenty or so would accumulate at his feet.
The sky lightened gradually. The sun, an unwarming, pale disk, rose at about eight, and all work came to a halt shortly after ten. Hughes collected his equipment and washed his hands at a cold water faucet. As the men began to leave for the Butcher's Arms or some other nearby pub, rats came out to scavenge the bloody refuse in the slaughterhouse's open field.
Hughes pedaled back through the monstrous Gothic archway of Marishal College at about ten-thirty. The sprawling building reminded him of the setting for a Frankenstein horror film: four prison-like wings — stark and gray as the rest of the city — enclosing a guardhouse and parking lot, dominated by the sooty clock tower, rising above the Michael Hall commissary. He parked his bicycle in a rack by the gate and lugged his bulky crate of brains and dry ice over to a small wooden door in the south wing, then up a winding staircase to the third floor.
John Hughes's morning routine was part of a risky scientific project on which he was gambling his entire career. That fall he was just beginning to isolate a crude chemical from his pig brains that was quite unlike anything scientists had ever seen. It was a naturally occurring compound, produced by cells within the brain, and yet in laboratory tests it behaved with an uncanny similarity to morphine — the narcotic drug derived from the opium poppy.
Eventually, a number of chemicals in the brain and body would be found to have properties so akin to morphine that they would be given the name endorphins ("the morphine within"), but in the fall of 1973, Hughes's crude compound had no name. His coworkers in the lab were calling it "substance X" — and very few people in the world, apart from Hughes, believed such a chemical even existed. If it did exist and if Hughes could get it pure enough, however, substance X was bound to be of tremendous importance.
Drug companies were sure to be interested. There were still only two kinds of medicine available to treat the full gamut of human aches and pains in 1973: aspirin — and its close relative acetaminophen, the chief ingredient in Tylenol — and the family of opiates. Opiates were strong but addictive; aspirin was safe but not strong enough to effectively treat migraine, arthritis, or the little understood syndrome of chronic pain.
There was a good chance that substance X might provide a unique alternative. In fact, since it originated in the body and because animals are not born addicted to narcotics, there was even a possibility that it might be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: the non-addictive painkiller — a narcotic-strength drug that was at the same time as safe as aspirin — that pharmaceutical company chemists had been seeking since the 1930s, the elusive treasure they had playfully dubbed the "bee without a sting." If so, its commercial potential was vast, in the hundreds of millions of dollars — which was not to discount the purely scientific value of substance X. If, as Hughes suspected, substance X was part of a fundamental mechanism in the brain regulating the perception of pain, it was possible that it might capture the attention of the Nobel prize committee, and it was probable that competing researchers were going to be very, very interested as well.
The opiate field had not yet become glamorous in 1973, but the brain was one of the last great unexplored frontiers of science. How the three-pound mass of tissue, composed of some one hundred billion nerve cells — the same number as stars in the Milky Way — worked to coordinate not only the basic machinery of creatures as complex as humans but memory, learning, and perception was still largely a mysterious puzzle that scientists were eager to solve.
Some pieces of the puzzle had been in place since earlier in the century, when the discovery that nerve cells exchange messages in the form of chemical transmitters created the basis of modern neuroscience. By the early 1960s, four primary neurotransmitters, linked to diverse behaviors — acetylcholine, norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin — had been identified. Although the precise way that neurotransmitters worked was not yet fully understood, researchers believed that these tiny pieces of protein were fired across the synapse, the microscopic gap between nerve cells, and that like molecular "keys" they fit into protein "keyholes" — called "receptors" — which, in turn, triggered the next cell to fire. Tiny shifts in the balances of these molecular human components governed not only our physical sensations, but also our mental state — who we are — at any given moment.
An additional array of chemicals called "neuromodulators" was thought to work at synapses arranged along the nerve before it reached the main synaptic junction at its terminal. These chemicals had a fine-tuning effect, altering primary transmitter chemical levels to speed up or slow down nerve impulses as they flashed down the fiber. Only a few neuromodulators had been positively identified. One of them, angiotensin, an important regulator of the heart, had been John Hughes's specialty while he was a postdoctoral researcher at Yale, and he, like many scientists, assumed that there were others. Substance X might possibly be one of them. Its precise role in pain perception was something Hughes was still trying to figure out.
Pain signals, in the form of nerve impulses, traveled along neural pathways from the surface of the body to the brain. There, pain centers — clusters of nerve cells which, when electrically stimulated, produced painful responses in laboratory animals — had been identified. However, scientists also suspected that the nervous system contained "descending" pain pathways, which enabled the brain itself to modulate, and in some cases deaden, the perception of pain. The existence of such "descending" pathways might help to explain a number of medical anomalies, ranging from Henry Beecher's famous case studies of severely wounded soldiers in World War II who were completely anesthetized to their serious injuries, to firewalkers who felt no pain and sustained no injury while dancing on red hot coals.
So far, scientists had made little progress in mapping these pain pathways and identifying the chemical transmitters involved with them. Was John Hughes's substance X the pain-modulating chemical key that would unlock a deeper understanding of the nature of physical and, perhaps, emotional pain? And, since narcotics also produced euphoria, could it also be linked to the brain's chemical code of pleasure? The prospects were tantalizing. For Hughes to claim any real success, though, and for the compound ever to be of use clinically, he not only would have to extract it but also purify it and identify the protein substance's amino acid composition. The formula was the ultimate goal, but to begin to approach that objective, fresh animal brains were needed.
Hence, on cold and wet mornings in the fall of 1973, Hughes sat in the public slaughterhouse of Aberdeen amongst a pile of pig's heads, packing away what was left of their brains into the crate on the front of his bicycle, far from scientific glory and, indeed, very much alone. Even his boss, Hans Kosterlitz, was not entirely convinced that Hughes would be able to succeed at his ambitious task, and Kosterlitz had originated the idea of the "morphine within." Kosterlitz was the source.CHAPTER 2
Hans Kosterlitz's battered Ford Anglia was parked in its usual spot near the archway in the courtyard of Marishal College when Hughes rolled in. Kosterlitz was seventy-one years old, short, gnome-like, and nearly blind in one eye as the result of a childhood shooting accident. His thick-lensed glasses exaggerated the owlish expression that contributed to his reputation at Aberdeen as a patriarchal sage. Unfortunately for pedestrians, despite his poor eyesight he still drove his car with the same enthusiasm that he showed in pursuing his research.
The Anglia always had a few new dents in it and when people from the Unit went out for dinner or drinks to Muldrum House or the Old Mill, there was a lot of jockeying over who would have to drive with Kosterlitz. John Hughes half-jokingly claimed that he had acquired his own Cortina so as not to keep having to refuse Kosterlitz's offers of a lift.
Kosterlitz was amazingly energetic for a septuagenarian. Alan North, an electrophysiologist in the Unit — who was a mountain-climbing enthusiast — would often meet him on the way to work, and the two would race up the spiraling staircase to the third-floor labs. Somehow, Kosterlitz always managed to keep up with the younger, more athletic man, even though he took several minutes in the privacy of his office to recover from the workout. "Work hard, play hard" was one of his pet expressions. "A day not spent in the lab is a wasted day" was his other familiar motto.
Hans Kosterlitz arrived at work promptly at nine each morning, rarely left before six-thirty in the evening, and seemed to spend most of that time zealously spying on his staff. Once, a staff member kept a tally of the number of times Kosterlitz barged into the lab: In the course of a single day, he made thirty-eight appearances.
Kosterlitz's assistant for ten years was Angela Waterfield — whom he spent the first part of each morning contentedly pestering in her circular turret lab. A reserved, heavyset woman who eventually married a petroleum engineer and moved to the United Arab Emirates, she usually endured Kosterlitz's nagging and tantrums when his instructions were not followed to the letter, although everyone could remember the occasions when she rushed into the hall in tears with Kosterlitz storming and fuming behind her, shouting "This data is no good!"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Anatomy of a Scientific Discovery"
Copyright © 2013 Jeff Goldberg.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction to the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition 1
Slaughterhouse Days 4
Brain Soup 11
Locks and Keys 22
Substance X 39
Breaking the Code 59
Alpha, Beta, Gamma 81
The Madness Factor 94
The Endorphin Business 115
Rats and Runners 144
The Symphony and the Orchestra 156