In October 2013, NIDA grantee Dr. Charles O’Brien received one of the French government’s highest honors, the Medal of Chevalier in the National Order of the Legion of Honor. Dr. O’Brien, a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania, was recognized for his “exemplary personal commitment to French-American relations as symbolized by … exceptional cooperation in science and in public health.”
Dr. O’Brien is internationally renowned for his pioneering research on the biological basis of addiction and new medications that have improved addiction treatment. He began this work in the 1970s, when he treated Vietnam War veterans who were addicted to heroin, and helped establish one of the first U.S. methadone clinics, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Among his achievements, Dr. O’Brien conducted studies that led the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve naltrexone for the treatment of alcoholism.
Dr. O’Brien’s relationship with French researchers began with his appointment in the 1980s to a World Health Organization expert committee on psychoactive drugs. Soon after meeting European scientists on the committee, he realized that it would be useful to learn another language. “So, I decided to try to speak French by listening to tapes in my car,” Dr. O’Brien says. His regular commute became the road to fluency.
In the 1990s, Dr. O’Brien began working with visiting French postdoctoral researchers and medical students who came to study at the University of Pennsylvania. He has mentored French scientists through the NIDA INVEST/Clinical Trials Network Research Fellowship, which offers foreign researchers the opportunity for postdoctoral training in addiction science at facilities in the United States.
Today, Dr. O’Brien’s research focuses on opiate drugs and alcohol, as well as cannabis, cocaine, and nicotine, and treatment for populations who confront particular obstacles to recovery, including inmates, recent parolees, and veterans who experience addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. His current research and teaching collaboration with French colleagues includes a grant to study whether methadone and buprenorphine can reduce the risk for HIV transmission in Vietnam.
Dr. O’Brien has received numerous honors for his work, including:
- The Jellinek Memorial Award from the Research Society on Alcoholism in 2012
- The James B. Isaacson Award for Lifetime Achievement, from the International Society for Biomedical Research on Alcoholism in 2012
- His election to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, from which he received the Rhoda and Bernard Sarnat International Prize in Mental Health in 2010
- The Nathan B. Eddy Memorial Award, from the College on Problems of Drug Dependence in 2003
- An honorary degree from the University of Bordeaux in 1994
Watch a NIDA interview with Dr. O’Brien about drugs, addiction, and HIV.