Sophie Elmhirst in MIL:
Peter McNaughton, a professor of pharmacology at King’s College London, is a devoted optimist. He acknowledges that his positivity can sometimes seem irrational, but he also knows that without it he wouldn’t have achieved all that he has. And what he’s achieved is quite possibly monumental. After decades of research into the cellular basis of chronic pain, McNaughton believes he has discovered the fundamentals of a drug that might eradicate it. If he’s right, he could transform millions, even billions, of lives. What more could anyone hope for than a world without pain?
McNaughton, nearly 70, is long-limbed, grey-haired and bespectacled. Though he has lived in London for decades, his voice still carries the cheery cadence of his native New Zealand. He wears blue Levis and black Nikes and delights in a late-blooming informality after years of heading university departments and turning up in a suit. Now, running his own lab, he can dress as he likes. On a Friday morning in April he waited for his young team to arrive at the modern, red-brick building in south London where he conducts his research. (McNaughton is always the first to arrive.) Today the team was assembled to hear a presentation by Rafaela Lone, a Brazilian scientist, who had spent the past six months in McNaughton’s lab breeding mice with symptoms that mimic fibromyalgia, a long-term condition that causes widespread pain and chronic fatigue. Lone explained that her mother had suffered from fibromyalgia for seven years. Her life had been reduced to a misery of symptoms ranging from urinary-tract infections to intense sensitivity to cold. Some days were bear-able; on others she couldn’t get out of bed. “She learns how to hold the pain,” said Lone.
McNaughton looked aggrieved at this (he finds it so hard to tolerate other people’s discomfort that, when his grandchildren come to stay, he lets them sleep in his bed because he can’t bear to disappoint them). But there was hope. Lone’s slides revealed her preliminary findings. Using genetic and pharmacological methods based on McNaughton’s research, she had achieved a consistent eradication of the mice’s pain. McNaughton looked exultant: “It’s really worked spectacularly well, hasn’t it?”
His eureka moment occurred back in 2010.