BAP News

Leslie L Iversen (1937-2020)


Monday, 10th August 2020

Updated: Monday, 10th August 2020

We were very sorry to learn of the death of Les Iversen and are grateful to Trevor Robbins, past-President of BAP, for this obituary.

Leslie Iversen was one of the most distinguished of what was an outstanding generation of U.K. neuropharmacologists. He excelled in every sphere, in intra-mural basic neuroscientific research of the MRC, in heading an important UK drug discovery unit for a major pharmaceutical company (Merck), in academic scholarship (at Oxford University), in a consultant capacity for both Biotech and academia, and in government policy, via the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs Committee, which he chaired with characteristic calm, élan and intellectual distinction.

Les was born in the West Country from a family of Danish origin, and I understand was admitted to Cambridge as a student partly on the strength of his expertise in botany. This perhaps helps to explain his later impressive competence in gardening, which were the only exploits I ever recall him expressing any degree of pride about; his was a brilliant intellect, accompanied by a modest, cultured and gentle sociability.

His early PhD research at University of Cambridge concerned understanding the action of the catecholamines, in particular re-uptake processes for noradrenaline, underlying the action of several antidepressant drugs. This resulted in an early book and what turned out to be a career-defining visit in the early 1960s to Julius Axelrod's laboratory at NIH where he met and worked with other to-be-luminaries, including Jacques Glowinski and Solomon Snyder. This was followed by a stint at Harvard Medical School in S. Kuffler's group where he collaborated in seminal research that established GABA as the major inhibitory neurotransmitter by studies on its release and reuptake in lobster neurons. On return to Cambridge he was offered in 1970 the accolade of a Directorship of an MRC Unit, Neurochemical Pharmacology (NCPU; 'nick-pooh') which became the breeding ground of many leading neuroscientists over the next couple of decades. Together with his charismatic partner Susan, Les established a most exciting social, as well as intellectual, environment for graduate students and post-docs in psychopharmacology at Cambridge, typified by their generous hosting of evening informal buffet dinners in honour of visiting scientific dignitaries. He brought our attention to the neurotoxin 6-hydroxydopamine for selective lesioning of the catecholamines that has formed the basis of so much of present-day research rediscovering similar phenomena with still more refined techniques. I first experienced Les' unrivalled cool and analytic approach to science via his elegant, appropriately dry humoured and sceptical, undergraduate lectures on the molecular basis of learning. He later personally and patiently supervised a minor project I essayed as a graduate student on metabolites of amphetamine, wisely and kindly deflecting me to other projects better suited to my capabilities.

At NCPU, Les stimulated work in a number of important ground-breaking areas: the nature and role of neuropeptides such as Substance P in sensory processes including pain; the mechanism of action of anti-psychotic drugs and work in schizophrenia; the neurochemical basis of neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer's and Huntington's. He became an FRS at the early age of 43 (and only slightly later, in 1986, gained the equivalent membership of the prestigious National Academy of the USA) and could presumably have continued in the same research vein for many years. But true to his early experiences in the Royal Navy, he adventurously navigated new challenges with the tremendous opportunity afforded by the unprecedented investment in 1983 by Merck, Sharp and Dohme in a new Research Centre at Terlings Park, Harlow under his leadership. New achievements of this major facility included the discovery of a class of NMDA receptor antagonists exemplified by MK-801, originally developed for the treatment of stroke, but later found, as a psychomimetic, to have even wider implications for schizophrenia, and as an invaluable research tool for studying glutamatergic function. Other major projects included Substance P receptor antagonists for the treatment of cancer induced nausea (and more speculatively, for depression), and the first cholescystokinin (CCK-2) receptor antagonists. Ultimately however, it became clear that discovering profitable new CNS drugs is no simple process; the eventual closure of the Merck Centre over a decade later showed that luck and serendipity, in addition to Leslie's intellectual vision and brilliance, was required for commercial success.

Leslie then became an academic again, taking a Visiting Professorship at the Dept of Pharmacology at Oxford in 1995, where he continued to exert his creative influence in many areas, including advising the Government on its cannabis policy and becoming sufficiently fascinated to author a typically succinct and erudite Oxford University Press Monograph on the subject ("The Science of Marijuana", 2001). Volumes on "A Very Short Introduction to Drugs"(2001) and stimulant drugs ("Speed, Ecstasy, Ritalin...", 2006) followed, as well as a co-authored text with Susan and his lifelong friend and scientific colleague, Floyd Bloom; "Introduction to Neuropsychopharmacology" (2009). With this burgeoning interest in drugs of abuse, it was hardly a surprise that he was invited to Chair the UK Government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (2010-2016), and also that he subsequently managed to avoid the many pitfalls of expressing evidence-based conclusions potentially to be associated with this important body.

Among his various roles and achievements, Les was deservedly awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award of the British Association for Psychopharmacology (2005), to sit alongside his many other awards, including the Wellcome Medal of the British Pharmacological Society, the Ferrier Lectureship of the Royal Society, and the CBE. We sadly mourn this colossus of the field and the wonderful person he was.

Trevor Robbins
BAP President 1996-1998