Published January 14, 2022
The American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET) has named Margarita L. Dubocovich, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB, the recipient of the 2022 Julius Axelrod Award in Pharmacology.
Dubocovich is receiving the award in recognition of her seminal work in understanding the physiological role of melatonin and its receptors on neuroendocrine function and circadian rhythms, and for her extraordinary contributions to the training of future pharmacologists, according to ASPET.
The Axelrod award was established in 1991 to honor the eminent American pharmacologist who shaped the fields of neuroscience, drug metabolism and biochemistry, and who served as a mentor for numerous world-renowned pharmacologists.
“It is quite fitting that Dr. Dubocovich receives this honor, as her groundbreaking research on melatonin neuropharmacology builds upon the earlier work of Julius Axelrod,” says Allison Brashear, vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School. “I am pleased this award also recognizes her exceptional dedication to mentoring the next generation of pharmacologists.”
Dubocovich is an international scholar on the brain hormone melatonin and its receptors. Her pioneering work has revealed melatonin’s impact on circadian rhythms, sleep disorders, depression, reproduction, body weight and torpor, an energy-conserving state similar to short-term hibernation.
“It is a distinct privilege to receive an award honoring the memory of such an eminent Nobel laureate, pharmacologist, neuroscientist and mentor, whose scientific contributions still impact the discovery of medicines to treat psychiatric disorders today,” Dubocovich says.
She first met Axelrod while she was completing her doctoral degree at the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina.
He visited a few years after he won a share of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1970, along with eminent pharmacologists Sir Bernard Katz and Ulf von Euler, for their discoveries on the release and reuptake of catecholamine neurotransmitters.
“Our team, working on the modulation of catecholamine release by presynaptic receptors at the time, gathered for a conversation with Dr. Axelrod where we all had the opportunity to discuss our experiments and ask questions,” Dubocovich recalls. “This meeting shaped the course of my career and influences me to this day.”
Dubocovich takes great pride in how her own work has contributed to the field of melatonin receptor pharmacology and physiology initiated by Axelrod.
“Dr. Axelrod’s forthrightness and ability to define concise hypotheses were the foundation upon which he developed novel experimental methodologies and discoveries,” she says. “His philosophy of science was something which has remained with me throughout my career, and one that I hope to continue to impart onto future scientists in the legacy of Dr. Axelrod.
“He emphasized the paramount importance of observation of biological effects over any complex analysis,” Dubocovich adds. “He used to say: ‘If the effect is strong, then you do not need sophisticated analysis to recognize the experiment was successful to move forward with the project.’”
Building upon the early work of Axelrod, Dubocovich is credited with discovering and revolutionizing the field of functional melatonin receptors and pioneering the pharmacology of melatonin receptors agonists and antagonists.
Her seminal paper in the journal Nature in 1983 described the presynaptic regulation of dopamine release in the retina, and began her career-defining quest to understand melatonin’s role in physiological function and receptor pharmacology.
Dubocovich discovered luzindole, the first melatonin receptor antagonist, successfully demonstrating its antidepressant-like activity by blocking melatonin receptor types in mouse models.
She has continued to push the frontiers of neuropharmacology with studies of melatonin receptor-mediated effects on brain neurogenesis and drug design. Most recently, she broke new ground discovering that environmental agents impact the activity of melatonin receptors.
Dubocovich, who serves as senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion in the Jacobs School, is a passionate educator who has built culturally and intellectually diverse and academically inclusive communities of trainees, and instituted inaugural programs for trainee development at all levels.
After instituting the Collaborative Learning and Integrated Mentoring in the Biosciences (CLIMB) program at Northwestern University, she launched CLIMB programs at UB that now include professional development and mentoring programs for undergraduates, master’s and doctoral students, postdoctoral fellows and junior faculty.
A National Institutes of Health (NIH) R25 grant has continuously funded her initiative for maximizing student development and has increased the number of underrepresented students in biomedical and behavioral research since 2012.
A dedicated mentor for research trainees, she has trained and provided research mentoring to 48 graduate and postdoctoral scholars. Her reputation as an outstanding research adviser is reflected in the fellowships that her trainees have received from NIH, the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association and others.
Her trainees currently hold academic positions and jobs in industry as pharmacologists, neuroscientists and toxicologists. Local and national mentoring awards have honored both her teaching and mentoring.
Dubocovich has been an ASPET member since 1983 and was named a fellow of the society in 2020. She was named a fellow of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology in 2013.
Dubocovich says that over the years she had many opportunities to meet Axelrod at scientific conferences to listen to his talks and discuss their common interest in the pharmacology of melatonin receptors.
“It is truly an honor to have had met him and to do what I can to carry his legacy forward,” she says.
The award will be formally presented at the ASPET Business Meeting and Awards Presentation during the ASPET Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology 2022 on April 2 in Philadelphia.
The award includes invitations to deliver the Julius Axelrod Lecture and organize the Axelrod Symposium in 2023, and to deliver a less formal presentation at the 2022 annual dinner meeting of The Catecholamine Society, an international organization consisting of scientists interested in all aspects of catecholamine research, which was co-founded by Axelrod in 1969.