Dr. Gavril Pasternak

Gavril W. Pasternak, M.D., Ph.D.


It is with great sadness and loss that we report the passing of the distinguished scientist and long-time INRC member and Founder, Professor Gavril W. Pasternak, M.D., Ph.D. ‘Gav’, as we all knew him, died on February 22, 2019, after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer; he was 71. INRC formally recognized Gav with their Founders’ Award in 2015.

Dr. Gavril Pasternak was a graduate of Johns Hopkins University (B.S. Chemistry, M.D., and Ph.D.).  During his undergraduate years at Hopkins, Gav’s primary interest was playing lacrosse, but his lifelong passion with opioids began when he joined the laboratory of Dr. Solomon Snyder for his Ph.D. work.  Those were exciting days with Sol’s group, which was one of the labs who first identified opioid receptors by radioligand binding.  Gav joined Candace Pert as the first students to work on opioids in Sol’s lab, and he began with isolating brain extracts to identify potential endogenous opioids, called morphine-like factors in those days.  Of course, Hans Kosterlitz, John Hughes and their colleagues at the University of Aberdeen were the first to purify enkephalins, so Gav switched his focus to characterizing pharmacological and biochemical properties of opioid receptors.  He was the first to show that sodium distinguished agonist and antagonist binding to opioid receptors by selectively decreasing affinities for agonists, a finding that would provide one of the foundations for exploring opioid receptor crystal structure decades later.  But his lifelong interest in mu receptor subtypes began with a serendipitous finding.  In characterizing the actions of novel irreversible alkylating ligands, which he hoped could be used as long-acting agonists and antagonists at opioid receptors, Gav found that the alkylating antagonist naloxonazine only reacted with a subset of mu receptors.  From that finding, he deduced that mu receptors must exist as multiple discernible subtypes.  This was more than simply an academic interest for Gav.  From his clinical work, he knew the enormous variation in the response of patients to analgesic drugs, and he theorized that multiple mu receptor subtypes not only provided the opportunity to design novel analgesics with fewer side effects, but could also individualize pain therapy with different patients.  From these early beginnings ultimately came his pioneering work on alternative RNA splice variants of mu receptors.

Following completion of his neurology residency at Johns Hopkins in 1979, Gavril joined the Neurology Department of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where he was the model of the classic clinician/scientist until his passing.  From the development of receptor binding assays to the recognition of splice variants of mu opioid receptors that may explain individual differences in response to opioid drugs, Dr. Pasternak devoted his career to contributing to our understanding of how opioids produce analgesia and their undesired effects.  In recent years he was awarded several patents for the development of novel opioid analgesics that do not produce many of the adverse effects of morphine.  Among the many NIH grants that funded these endeavors, Dr. Pasternak was especially proud of the Research Scientist Development, MERIT, Senior Scientist awards and most recently, a UG3 grant from NIDA to develop ‘…A New class of potent, safer analgesics’, that target one type of mu receptor splice variants identified in his lab.

In recognition of the impact of his scientific career, “Gav” was honored with the 2012 ASPET Julius Axelrod Award in Pharmacology. In addition, he has been recognized with many other scientific awards for his work in the fields of pain [e.g., John J. Bonica (IASP), Raymond W. Houde (Eastern Pain Association) and the Frederick W. L. Kerr Basic Science Research Awards (American Pain Society)], 2018 Award in Excellence in Pharmacology/Toxicology awards (PhRMA Foundation)], and as a physician-scientist innovator [Harrington Scholar-Innovator Award].  

Gavril believed that mentoring was an important aspect of research and teaching, and his lab always included a cadre of summer students (high school and college), graduate and medical students, postdoctoral fellows, residents and visiting professors from all over the world. Gav’s irrepressible enthusiasm for science was contagious. Most of them produced at least one paper and presented their work with Gav at a national or international meeting; all of them received thoughtful guidance and attention geared towards helping them identify and achieve their career goals.

What many did not know about Gav was that he was a two-time US Lacrosse Man of the Year awardee (NY Metro Division), and he continued to play in lacrosse tournaments through age 70. Gav’s passion for lacrosse and mentoring young talent were combined when he co-founded the Doc’s NYC Lacrosse program in 1996 so that children in NYC had a place to play lacrosse in their home town.  Because few NYC public schools offered lacrosse as a team sport in high school, Gav suggested that a public-private partnership might help fund lacrosse teams in inner city public schools. In 2006, the non-profit organization CityLax partnered with the NYC Board of Education to make that happen. This enabled a diverse group of kids from all over NYC to play from elementary age through high school, and to become eligible for college scholarships.

Gavril was predeceased by his beloved wife Sandra and daughter Katie Pasternak.  The condolences of the ASPET community are with his daughter Anna Pasternak and son David Avram Pasternak.  He is also survived by his academic family of undergraduate and graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, visiting scientists, collaborators, colleagues, and friends.

We miss you terribly, Gav.


Submitted by

Dennis Paul, PhD., Professor of Pharmacology, LSU Health Sciences Center, New Orleans, LA


Kelly Standifer, Ph.D., Professor of Pharmacology and Chair, Pharmaceutical Sciences,

University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City, OK


Ying-Xian Pan, M.D., Ph.D., Member, MSKCC and Sloan-Kettering Institute, New York, NY


Grace Rossi, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, Long Island University-Post, Brookville, NY


Steven Childers, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Wake Forest School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, NC


In honor of Gav’s Accomplishments and to promote his legacy, please consider donating here to support pain management at MSKCC:


You can add a note of remembrance athttps://www.legacy.com/obituaries/berkshire/obituary.aspx?n=gavril-william-pasternak&pid=191661024&fhid=2086

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