February 6, 2020

Conn, Calipari to receive major pharmacology awards

Two Vanderbilt University pharmacologists have won prestigious awards from the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET).

by Bill Snyder

Two Vanderbilt University pharmacologists have won prestigious awards from the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET).

Jeffrey Conn, PhD

Jeffrey Conn, PhD, founding director of the Vanderbilt Center for Neuroscience Drug Discovery, has won the society’s 2020 Julius Axelrod Award in Pharmacology. It is one of the field’s highest honors.

Erin Calipari, PhD, assistant professor of Pharmacology, has won the 2020 Division for Neuropharmacology Early Career Award, which honors young independent investigators in neuropharmacology.

The awards will be presented in April during the ASPET Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology 2020 in San Diego, Calif.

Erin Calipari, PhD

“Our department is extremely lucky to have the highest caliber pharmacology faculty nationwide,” said Ege Kavalali, PhD, professor and acting chair of the Department of Pharmacology.

“The rapid pace of discoveries emerging from the work (of Drs. Calipari and Conn) moves the whole field of pharmacology forward,” Kavalali said. “Their awards are highly deserved and attest to the premier status of our department among its peers.”

According to ASPET, Conn was recognized for “his commitment to academic mentoring of trainees and his cutting-edge research in developing therapies for psychiatric diseases in an academic setting.”

Previous Axelrod Award recipients from Vanderbilt include Lee Limbird, PhD, Elaine Sanders-Bush, PhD, and the late Sydney Spector, PhD.

“I am extremely honored to be selected for this award,” said Conn, the Lee E. Limbird Professor of Pharmacology. “The number of Vanderbilt faculty who have been selected for ASPET awards over the years attests to the tremendous strength of the research and training environment in pharmacology at Vanderbilt.”

Conn received his PhD in Pharmacology from Vanderbilt in 1986 and pursued postdoctoral studies at Yale University before joining the faculty in Pharmacology at Emory University. He was senior director and head of Neuroscience at Merck and Co. in West Point, Pennsylvania, before returning to Vanderbilt in 2003.

He and his colleagues have pioneered a novel approach to treating neurological and psychiatric disorders using compounds called allosteric modulators. Rather than turning receptors “on” or “off” (what traditional drugs usually do), allosteric modulators “tune” receptor function up or down, like a dimmer switch in an electrical circuit.

Conn’s team has discovered promising candidates for treating a wide range of disorders including Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease and Fragile X syndrome.

Calipari earned her PhD in Neuroscience in 2013 from Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City before joining the Vanderbilt faculty in 2017.

She was recognized for “cutting-edge techniques to outline the neural circuits and molecular mechanisms that underlie both adaptive and maladaptive processes in reward, motivation and associative learning.”