Although the path at Lafayette was circuitous for Jacobi Cunningham ’03, it led him to just the spot where he wanted to be. After completing his Ph.D. in pharmacology at Boston University School of Medicine, he recently became a post-doctoral fellow with the life sciences department of Alkermes, a pharmaceutical company in Waltham, Mass. His work there involves long-acting therapeutic drugs.
“I work in a neuroscience laboratory where my typical day includes in vivo neurochemistry to test the effects of novel and known compounds in the central nervous system,” says Cunningham. “The work that I do extends the pharmacological profile of known compounds and also supports new development and formulation.” In addition, he is also part of project teams to discuss new drug formulations and targets for a wide range of chronic disorders, including addiction and central nervous system disorders.
“I rely heavily on my scientific backbone and framework that I learned at Lafayette,” says Cunningham. “I think the most important aspect of my education there was the introduction to and preparation for using applied research techniques and approaches.”
Alkermes specializes in long-acting injectable therapeutic drugs, which promote patient compliance. Two examples are Risperdal®Consta® and Vivitrol®. Risperdal®Consta® is a schizophrenia and bipolar disorder treatment that uses Alkermes’ proprietary Medisorb® technology to maintain therapeutic medication levels in the body through one injection every two weeks.Vivitrol® is an extended release once-a-month injectable drug to treat opiate and alcohol addiction.
“Both drugs leverage upon known pharmacology and are designed to maximize patient compliance and limit the number of therapeutic dosing required,” explains Cunningham.
Cunningham became fascinated by drug interactions and their influence on disease and illness when he switched his major from biology to neuroscience at Lafayette. In a summer internship at Harvard Medical School, he was exposed to diagnosing and digitally imaging the effects of neurodegenerative diseases. That experience and research he did with Elaine Reynolds, associate professor of biology, helped propel him toward graduate work in pharmacology.
Cunningham’s doctoral program at Boston University included two years of research and study at the University of Toledo where Bryan Yamamoto, his doctoral thesis adviser, had taken a new post at the College of Medicine. Cunningham returned to the Boston area in spring 2010 to defend his dissertation, which involved chronic stress and MDMA, the drug commonly known as ecstasy. “I studied the interaction between drug abuse and chronic unpredictable stress as an animal model of daily stress in humans,” he explains. “The two combined resulted in learning deficits and brain damage not otherwise seen with MDMA or stress alone. It suggests that stress therapy would be an important component in drug abuse therapy and that stress is an important component of drug research.”
“The take-home for me is to expect the unexpected,” says Cunningham. He describes his experience as fascinating and challenging with no time for “sitting down and relaxing. You have to be prepared to change and to deal with obstacles.”