Civelli Appointed New Chair

Balmore Ruano/Photography Intern

Recently named Chair of the Pharmacology Department at the UC Irvine School of Medicine, Olivier Civelli, is considered one of the world’s leading researchers in the classification and cloning of dopamine receptors. He has helped pave the way toward tackling neurological disorders such as schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease and Tourette’s syndrome.


Since joining the pharmacology department at UCI in 1996, he has continued his thorough research alongside colleagues and assistants..


According to Dr. Civelli, his interest in biology developed as a child.


“Yes, I was interested very early […] I always tried to understand, and we had a garden,” he said. “For example, I was trying to understand how ants would always follow one path, and how they did that. I kind of tried to destroy the path, and, in spite of the fact that I was young when doing that, I could figure out that it had to do with olfaction. I became interested in behavior of animals, trying to understand — knowing that it could be extrapolated to humans.”


This fascination with the natural world would later evolve into highly focused biological studies in university.


He obtained his doctorate in biochemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Zurich, Switzerland.


While completing a post-doctorate program in the United States at the Oregon Health and Science University, however, he realized his true passion.


“I became interested in receptors, in my lab, and so I, being in molecular biology, started [with] clone receptors,” he said. “We cloned a receptor which is a dopamine receptor, and dopamine as a particular receptor is very important, and it was seen as very important in the field of psychiatry, because all the drugs which are anti-psychotic, like those that work for schizophrenia, act on the dopamine d2 receptor. That’s when I really became involved in molecular biology, and I stayed with it.”


After spending nearly 11 years in Oregon, Civelli received an offer to work for Hoffman-La Roche, a Swiss pharmaceutical company in 1992.


It provided him a unique opportunity to tackle one of biology’s most challenging questions.

“There are still at least, 100 [receptors] in your genome, receptors which we know exist, but not what activates them,” he said. “I wanted to use those receptors to find what are the ligands which are activating them. And that way at the time, when I started that in 1989, it was a very risky impossible project but I felt there was a way to it.


“I couldn’t ensure funding here in the United States — so when Roche told me to come, and I was to be head of the deptartment with a large budget,  I figured out I could maybe do it there. So I went, I went to Basil and I took over the department and I started to do that work on trying to find the ligand — natural ligand for that receptor.”


Accepting the offer turned out to be a wise decision.


Three years later, Dr. Civelli and his team became the first researchers to successfully utilize a receptor toward the discovery of a “totally new” peptide.


”We showed that we could do that, but I needed the power of the pharmaceutical company to do it,” he said.

Yet despite the convenience and opportunities available when working at Hoffman-La Roche, he preferred the scholarly approach to research.


“I wanted to get back into the academic freedom, which is not exactly the same — as in the industry you have, even if you are of significant level,” he said. “I was vice president at La Roche, [but] the aims of the work [were]  not always discovering, but [rather]  finding new drugs.”


After seeking out university positions, in 1996 he took on a professorship while continuing his research within UCI’s Department of Pharmacology, and has come to enjoy his 15 years here so far.


“UCI has been fine for me, it is a place where I can live on University Hills, so I can come by bike, which I do most of the times […] there is stuff which I really like, like there is the international — the fact that around Irvine you have such a broad spectrum of ethnic groups,” he said. “I really appreciate [that] because I love to go to different restaurants and not eat always the same kind of food; I enjoy very much Asian food. I don’t like the fact that, you know, it’s a planned city, the Irvine company decided a lot of things — I’m not used to that but of course Irvine is very safe very clean. I mean, it’s like Switzerland.”


Yet Dr. Civelli has never been one to stay local for too long, as demonstrated by his zest for travel.


“I am invited so I go somewhere and I stay for a while, I like to stay for a while and understand the place,” he said.


“But often I can give seminars or I am invited to give talks. For example in 2006, [Dr. Civelli and his wife] went for six weeks in Japan and two weeks in Korea and gave 15 seminars along the way. Last year I went for a seven-week sabbatical in China, because I have good interactions with Chinese scientists.”


He plans to visit China once again, to conduct research at the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics, where he has collaborated on research to fully understand the workings of traditional Chinese herbs.


If there is one quality that Dr. Civelli values, it is enthusiasm and passion for one’s work.


“I never thought that I would succeed, but [with] some risk and a little bit of luck, you can succeed,” he said. “But most important, is enthusiasm in what you do.”


Had he not been persistent and fully committed throughout all his years of research, his efforts may not have come to fruition as they did.


Sharing the indescribable moments of joy when his team had made significant discoveries, he said,“You know that moment where you say, ‘Phew, we work three, four years, five years, six years and we have 20 seconds of … this,’ […] I’m very lucky to have that, because many did not,” he said.


“This is what young people today need, the young generation is losing a little bit of enthusiasm. But not all eh? Not all.”