Nancy K. Mello, Pioneer in Substance Abuse Research, Dies at 78

November 26, 2013

Nancy K. Mello, PhD, director of McLean Hospital’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Center (ADARC) and professor of psychology (neuroscience) at Harvard Medical School, passed away unexpectedly on Nov. 25. She was 78.

A dedicated and well-respected researcher and mentor, Dr. Mello along with her husband Jack H. Mendelson, MD, founded the ADARC at McLean Hospital nearly 40 years ago.

“Dr. Mello was a pioneer in substance abuse research and her accomplishments in advancing our knowledge of the biological and behavioral aspects of substance abuse were truly impressive by any standards,” said Scott L. Rauch, MD, president and psychiatrist in chief for McLean Hospital. “She was passionately devoted to her work and it will have a long-lasting impact on the field of substance abuse.”

Dr. Mello had a prolific publication record, authoring more than 400 original peer-reviewed articles in numerous biomedical journals, including Science, Nature, The New England Journal of Medicine, The American Journal of Psychiatry, Biological Psychiatry and The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Along with her husband, Dr. Mello was the first to study the biological, behavioral and social dynamics of alcohol self-administration and withdrawal in people struggling with alcoholism.

“Their findings on loss of control and mood dysfunction as a result of drinking by alcoholics not only revolutionized scientific understanding of alcoholic drinking behavior, it also stimulated a new generation of behavioral and psychological researchers to apply experimental models to the study of alcoholism,” said Roger Weiss, MD, chief of the Division of Alcohol, Drugs, and Addiction at McLean Hospital.

Dr. Mello’s interest in substance abuse went beyond alcohol as she conducted research on marijuana and opiates. In 1980, she and her husband published a landmark study in the journal Science indicating the potential use of buprenorphine for opioid dependence. The study became the foundation for work that 20 years later, resulted in new and more effective methods to treat patients addicted to opioids.

Dr. Mello earned both her bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from Pennsylvania State University. After receiving a PhD in Clinical Psychology, Dr. Mello was a post-doctoral trainee in physiology at Harvard Medical School and in the Experimental Analysis of Behavior Laboratory with Dr. B.F. Skinner at Harvard University. Dr. Mello then joined the Stanley Cobb Laboratories for Psychiatric Research at Massachusetts General Hospital and built her first operant behavior laboratory. Subsequently, Dr. Mello entered federal service and directed the first Intramural Research Program of the National Institute of Mental Health’s National Center for Prevention and Control of Alcoholism. She was also a Research Consultant to the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention of the Executive Office of the President.

In 1974, McLean Hospital recruited Dr. Mello and Dr. Mendelson to spearhead its alcohol and drug abuse research program—a program that flourished under their tremendous leadership, characterized by knowledge, hard work and scientific savvy. In its four decades, the ADARC’s multidisciplinary research programs have expanded exponentially. The center now includes four laboratory divisions, which, since their founding, have been continuously funded by competitively obtained, peer-reviewed, federal grants and contracts.

A widely recognized authority and contributor to the science of addiction, Dr. Mello’s guidance was often sought by others. She was a consultant to the President of the United States Jimmy Carter’s Biomedical Research Panel, she was on the nominating committee for the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for 15 years, and served as chair of the National Institute of Drug Abuse Board of Scientific Counselors.

Dr. Mello served on 12 editorial boards and was the editor of Advances in Substance Abuse since 1980 and editor of Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology since 2005.

“Dr. Mello was a luminary in the field of substance abuse research,” said Rauch. “Thanks to her vision and her dedication to mentoring the future generations of scientists, she will continue to have influence on the field of addictions research for years to come.”

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