One of the great medical researchers of our time, Candace Pert combines razor-sharp logic, highly developed intuition, and a refreshing emotional openness that together enable her to embody the holistic, cross-disciplinary vision she advocates. Her bestselling book, Molecules of Emotion (Scribners, 1997, now in paperback) is noteworthy both as an insider's history of the changing scientific paradigm and as one woman’s journey of growth and understanding.
Pert was a graduate student in her mid-twenties when she discovered the opiate receptor, the cellular bonding site for endorphins, the body's natural painkillers, which she calls our "underlying mechanism for bliss and bonding." This breakthrough presaged a sea-change in scientific understanding of human internal communication systems, pointing the way toward the information-based model that is now supplanting the long-dominant structuralist viewpoint. Ironically, she achieved her eureka moment after having been ordered by her supervisor to stop her research, which he had concluded was a dead-end street. But in this and many other instances, once inspired, Pert is not easily dissuaded.
In the years since, Candace Pert has focused her research on developing non-toxic pharmaceuticals that selectively block receptor sites for the AIDS virus. She has also pursued the "threateningly interdisciplinary" relationship between the nervous and immune systems, developing documentation of a bodywide communication system mediated by peptide molecules and their receptors, which she perceives to be the biochemical basis of emotion and the potential key to many of the most challenging diseases of our time.
In this interview with Dr. Daniel Redwood, Dr. Pert discusses the two areas of research about which she is now most passionate: the possible role of vaccines in causing autism, and her work on Peptide T, which she believes may herald a major breakthrough in AIDS treatment. She also articulates her vision for the Institute for New Medicine, which she founded in affiliation with the Georgetown University School of Medicine to fund further research on alternative paradigm medicine.
Dr. Pert was awarded her Ph.D. in pharmacology, with distinction, in 1974, from The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Previously, she had completed her undergraduate studies, in biology, cum laude, in 1970, at Bryn Mawr College. Dr. Pert conducted a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Postdoctoral Fellowship with the Department of Pharmacology at Johns Hopkins from 1974-1975. After 1975, she held a variety of research positions with the National Institutes of Health, and until 1987, served as Chief of the Section on Brain Biochemistry of the Clinical Neuroscience Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). She then founded and directed a private biotech laboratory. Dr. Pert currently holds a Research Professorship in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, DC.
Dr. Pert is an internationally recognized pharmacologist who has published over 250 scientific articles on peptides and their receptors and the role of these neuropeptides in the immune system. She has an international reputation in the field of neuropeptide and receptor pharmacology, and chemical neuroanatomy. She has lectured worldwide on these and other subjects, including her theories on emotions and mind-body communication. Dr. Pert holds a number of patents for modified peptides in the treatment of psoriasis, Alzheimer's disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, stroke and head trauma. One of these, Peptide T, is currently in a Phase II trial, in San Francisco, for the treatment of AIDS and neuroAIDS.
The Institute for New Medicine website can be accessed at www.tinm.org
For further information:
Candace Pert, Ph.D.
Georgetown University Medical Center
Department of Physiology & Biophysics
School of Medicine
3900 Reservoir Road
Washington, DC 20007
202-687-5250 or (Fax) 202-687-7407
DANIEL REDWOOD: What current research interests you most?
CANDACE PERT: The cause and cure for autism. I'm most interested in that because I'm very interested in the human brain, and in this disease what’s impaired are the two things that make us human: language and bonding patterns. That's what’s deranged in the autistic kids.
REDWOOD: What studies on autism are most needed?
PERT: I feel that it's critical to evaluate the vaccine hypothesis as to the possible cause of the disease. It has to be a national priority to see why this disease is an epidemic right now. When we had an AIDS epidemic there was a lot of money thrown at it, appropriately, and a lot of progress was made. There’s an autism epidemic right now and I'd love to get to the bottom of that.
REDWOOD: What would you say to those who argue that rather than there being an epidemic, the statistics are the result of changed definitions of autism and increased reporting of cases?
PERT: I would say that they're wrong, in a self-serving, ostrich-like, head-in-the-sand way. It's very sad. It's overwhelming both by statistics and experience. Better diagnosis might account for a 30 percent or 50 percent increase. But we're talking about 500 to 600 percent increases, and this is being catalogued not by the Centers for Disease Control but by the education departments across the country. That's compared to a baseline of ten years ago. If you compare it to a baseline of 20 years ago, the increase would be more like 1000 percent.
Also, the disease is appearing in certain forms that it never had before, such as the regressive form. It used to be that most autistics, by far, were born and not made. Now it's called regressive disorder, where they seem totally fine and then they regress when they’re about a year and a half old. This is just around the time they get the vaccines. Many mothers believe that it's the vaccine.
REDWOOD: Do you believe that vaccination should be mandatory?
PERT: I'm not enough of a socio-legal expert, but I think it’s very strange that we have this one form of medical treatment that hasn’t really been tested carefully, and yet it’s mandatory. It seems unbelievable. There’s no long term testing of safety. As I understand it, the vaccine trials are just a few weeks long and do not include long term follow-up.
REDWOOD: As to where we go from here on this issue of autism, is your own focus, and should society's focus, be primarily set on determining the degree to which vaccines are responsible and thereby preventing it by changing vaccination policies? Or is your interest also in new methods of treatment?
PERT: You can't separate them. I always say that in order to cure a disease, you have to understand exactly what causes it. The cure part is easier; it's the cause part that’s the hard one. So what’s interesting about the vaccine hypothesis is that there is a plausible mechanism, whereby if you can document it and understand it, you will really understand the disease at the cellular and the molecular level. And that could lead to treatment.
REDWOOD: With autism, is this an issue that relates to vaccines across the board or are there certain vaccines that seem most problematic?
PERT: The one that many of the parents are talking about, and which the new data from England has implicated, is the MMR vaccine—mumps, measles, and rubella. At this point a kid needs 34 separate shots before he’s five years old. The number of vaccinations has been increasing exponentially each decade.
REDWOOD: Why? What's the rationale for that?
PERT: The tragedy is that it’s well-meaning. There's this feeling that diseases are caused by microbes and that they can be eliminated. There are now vaccinations (the Hepatitis-B vaccine) that are given to newborns before they leave the hospital. These problems may be from a particular vaccine, but in some cases I'm sure it can be a general inflammatory reaction, if someone is genetically predisposed. Our lab last year showed that chemokines, a class of peptides, play a role in inflammation, and they actually can regulate which neurons [nerve cells] survive and which neurons die. The key is that the brain is still developing at 18 months, and the parts that are developing are language and eye contact, the very things that become deranged in autism.
REDWOOD: What specific findings would be necessary to prove the link between vaccines and autism?
PERT: The gold standard would be a study that's actually been proposed by Dr. Marie Bristol-Powers, who is the head of autism at the National Institutes of Health. It would be a prospective study where you would have to follow many women, perhaps 100,000 women, through their pregnancies. You would keep complete vaccine records, look at reactions to the vaccines, see which children develop autism, and follow the ones that do. By some estimates, there’s one in 200 births now that are turning into autistic children. So maybe statistically she wouldn't need to do quite so many.
That’s the gold standard, but what Michael Ruff and I are working on (he's an immunologist, I'm a neuroscientist), using well-controlled samples of blood from autistic children and matched controls, is to determine whether there are certain antibodies against certain viruses or viral products. It might be possible to find something in the blood of children with autism and get a really good indication of what’s going on. I like that because the other study would take at least three years.
REDWOOD: Is the other study actually going to happen?
PERT: That's an interesting question. I know that Dr. Bristol-Powers very much wants it to happen. I saw her in action at a meeting with the parents. She is open-minded and thinks it's necessary to look at the vaccine. The study is going to cost $70 million. But it seems like most of the health professionals have the wagons circled on this one. It’s just too horrible, and they don’t even want to look at it.
REDWOOD: Do other nations, in Europe and elsewhere, require a course of vaccines similar to that in the United States? Or is this unique?
PERT: I'm not an expert on this, but as far as I know nobody’s got as extensive a program as we’ve got. In fact, one of the most controversial, but to me most interesting aspects of the evidence is that when the MMR was introduced in the United States, in the next two years there was a five-fold increase in autism. But England, for example, required more proof and kept it out for ten more years. And when it was introduced there, they had the same increase. So they had a parallel curve. Unfortunately, the whole debate about whether vaccines play a role in autism has now been framed in terms of this question about whether the English data (put together by Wakefield) is true, or whether it's a statistical fluke. Everybody’s focusing on the data in the UK and whether autism actually increased before or after the vaccine. There have been many exchanges in The Lancet and in various medical journals. It's silly that the debate is focused on the UK when all you really have to do is look at the education statistics in the United States.
After the release of my book, Molecules of Emotion, I've given many lectures to education groups. Principals, superintendents, teachers. They have come to me; they’re the ones who alerted me to it. People would say, "I've been teaching 30 years in the school system, and what’s going on? There used to be so few Special Ed students, and now there are so many."
REDWOOD: The other area of research in which you’re deeply involved relates to HIV and AIDS. Please tell us about your work.
PERT: You happen to be calling at a critical moment. Starting next week at the St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco, there will, for the first time, be a small, careful trial to see if Peptide T makes the virus levels go down. Even though the drug Peptide T was invented in 1986, it's taken until now to reach this point.
REDWOOD: If there is a significant decrease in the viral levels, where does that lead?