Dr. Pert rose to prominence in the early 1970s as a graduate pharmacology student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Working with neuroscientist Solomon H. Snyder, she discovered what became known as the opiate receptor — the first verified receptor in the brain and the one responsive to painkillers such as morphine and drugs such as opium.
Receptors, which are found in the brain and throughout the body, are often compared to locks. Each receptor has corresponding chemicals that fit the receptor in the way that a key fits a lock.
“Any way you can make love, somebody’s already thought of,” Dr. Pert told The Washington Post years later. “Any crazy caper you can get up to, any great meal you can think of, any combination of children or idea of how to raise them — somebody’s already thought of. But nobody’s ever discovered an opiate receptor before.”
To make their discovery, Dr. Pert and her colleagues introduced radioactively tagged drugs to brain material and observed where the drugs bonded with the tissue. Their findings, published in the journal Science in 1973, raised beguiling questions about the neurological system.
“God presumably did not put an opiate receptor in our brains so that we could eventually discover how to get high with opium,” Smithsonian magazine later quoted Dr. Pert as saying.
Scientists reasoned that the opiate receptor existed because the body produced a natural painkiller similar to analgesic drugs. In 1975, two researchers in Scotland, Hans W. Kosterlitz and John Hughes, identified enkephalins — naturally occurring substances in the body that can relieve pain or create feelings of euphoria.
Kosterlitz, Hughes and Snyder shared the 1978 Lasker Award for basic medical research, which is often regarded as a precursor to the Nobel Prize. Dr. Pert attracted media attention by protesting her omission from the award.
By her account, Dr. Pert had continued the research after Snyder ordered her to move on to other projects. Some observers suggested that she had been excluded because she was a woman, The Post reported.
On the other hand, young researchers are generally expected to stand aside when more-senior colleagues take credit for group achievements, with the understanding that they will receive the same privileges later in their own careers.
Because of her protestations, Dr. Pert became, according to Smithsonian, “something of a pariah to the establishment.” Years after the incident, she told the Denver Post that she had been “naive” and “stepped too far over the line.”
After receiving her PhD from Johns Hopkins in 1974, Dr. Pert joined the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda and deepened her research to include neuropeptides — chemicals used by the brain for communication. In 1982, she became the NIMH’s section chief for brain biochemistry. She was credited with leading the team that discovered Peptide T, a chemical thought to be potentially capable of impeding the HIV virus.