The Kenneth M. Johnson Pharmacology/Toxicology Graduate Program Endowment Fund 

Dr. Kenneth M. Johnson, Professor Emeritus

Kenneth JohnsonKenneth Maurice Johnson, Jr. is a native of Houston, Texas who is known for his contributions to the behavioral and biochemical mechanisms of cannabinoids, cocaine, and particularly phencyclidine (PCP). After earning his B.S. in biology and teaching high school physical science for two years, he started his graduate studies in the Department of Biophysical Sciences at the University of Houston in 1969 and finished his Ph.D. work in 1974. His early work on cannabinoids led to his work on “angel dust” (phencyclidine, or PCP) and its interaction with the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) glutamate receptor subtype, for which he is best known. This work, carried out at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, as well as his work on cocaine analogs, has been cited over 7500 times, making him one of most cited pharmacologists in the world. During his tenure at UTMB he served as the Graduate Program Director, in Pharmacology & Toxicology (PHTO) in three terms (1985-1989, 1996-1999, and 2002-2016). During this time, 58 students completed the Ph.D. program. Fourteen graduate students received the Ph.D. under Dr. Johnson’s tutelage, and twelve postdoctoral fellows received additional training in his laboratory.


Purpose: The funds generated from The Kenneth M. Johnson Pharmacology/Toxicology Graduate Program Endowment Fund will be utilized to advance the Pharmacology/Toxicology graduate program, as determined by the Pharmacology/Toxicology Program Director, in conjunction with graduate faculty.

Donors:Pharmacology & Toxicology Faculty, staff, students & Alumni


Kenneth Johnson was born December 7, 1944 in Houston, TX. He is one of three children. Johnson and his wife have two grown sons. He lives in Galveston, TX.Kenneth Johnson
Dr. Johnson attended Stephen F. Austin University from 1963-1967, graduating with a B.S. in biology and a minor in chemistry. He then taught physical science in the Houston ISD for two years before enrolling in the graduate program in biophysical sciences at the University of Houston in 1969. After studying the hydrodynamic sedimentation properties of closed and nicked circular DNA under high g forces at UH, he met Dr. Marlyne Kilbey from the Department of Psychology who was studying the effects of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC) on aggressive behavior in mice. This meeting completely changed his research interests. As a result, he continued his studies with Drs. Kilbey and Beng T. Ho at the Texas Research Institute of Mental Sciences (TRIMS) from neurochemical and behavioral perspectives and earned his Ph.D. in 1974.
He then accepted a postdoctoral fellow with Drs. Wm. L. Dewey and Louis Harris at the Medical College of Virginia (MCV, now merged with Virginia Commonwealth University, or VCU), where he continued his work on the behavioral and neuropharmacological effects of cannabinoids in mice (1975-1977). Following his two and one-half years of training in pharmacology, he moved back to Texas where he began his independent career as an Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, TX.
His early work at UTMB was generally focused on mechanisms of uptake and release of neurotransmitters and how drugs of abuse, particularly cocaine and phencyclidine affected these processes. A related area of research involved understanding the mechanisms by which nitric oxide impacted these processes. This was followed by studies on the mechanisms by which glutamate analogs (particularly N-methyl-D-aspartate, NMDA) as well as glycine and serine altered neurotransmitter release through stimulation of both ionotropic and metabotropic transmitter receptors.
Dr. Johnson is most well-known for his work on the molecular, cellular and behavioral effects of phencyclidine (PCP, “angel dust”) in young postnatal rats. This work focused largely on PCP’s interactions with the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) glutamate receptor subtype and has been the cornerstone of his research career. Following several studies on the behavioral effects of PCP in adult rats, he became interested the hypothesis that young, immature animals could be particularly vulnerable to the effects of drugs like cocaine, and particularly, PCP. This work was largely carried out in perinatal rats that were treated with PCP on postnatal (PN) days 7, 9, and 11. This treatment regimen caused the apoptotic, caspase-3-dependent death of a number of neurons (especially parvalbumin containing neurons) in the prefrontal cortex, thalamus, hippocampus, subiculum and striatum. This was associated with significant schizophrenia-like behavioral changes later in life such as behavioral sensitization to a small dose of PCP (on PN42), a loss of pre-pulse inhibition of acoustic startle on PN24-25, as well as a deficit in acquisition of delayed spatial alternation task (thought to be dependent on short-term working memory and known to be deficient in schizophrenia). The mechanism by which PCP caused neuronal death was shown to involve both the PI-3 kinase/Akt/GSK-3β and MEK/ERK pathways, which could be ameliorated by lithium and BDNF (in vitro). Later, we were able to demonstrate that activation of dopamine D1 receptors could compensate for the effect of PCP by activating both PKA, which increased NR1 trafficking to the synapse, as well as FYN kinases, which in turn activated Src kinases that enhanced NR2B trafficking into the synapse. These effects increased synaptic strength and cell survival through the PI3K/Akt/GSK-3B cell survival pathway, suggesting that D1 receptor activation could be useful in treating psychoses such as schizophrenia which is now most typically treated with D2 receptor antagonists.
Dr. Johnson has also been honored for his teaching efforts with the Dr. Leon Bromberg Professor for Excellence in Teaching, 2003-2005 and the Mary and J. Palmer Saunders Professorship for Excellence in Teaching, 2009-2011. Recently, upon his retirement, he was awarded a lectureship in the name of Dr. Chauncey Leake, one of the early pioneers in the field of pharmacology.eated with D2 receptor antagonists.

2019 Endowment Recipients

Dennis Sholler

Best Student PresentationPharmacology & Toxicology Summer Symposium

Dennis earned his B.A. in Cell Biology & Neuroscience from Rutgers University in 2015 and subsequently pursued his interest in scientific research via the Pharmacology and Toxicology Graduate Program at the University of Texas Medical Branch. He joined the laboratory of Kathryn A. Cunningham, Ph.D. in April 2016 and was awarded a predoctoral position on the National Institute on Drug Abuse T32 training grant secured by the UTMB Center for Addiction Research. Dennis has presented his research at several international meetings with the support of the NIDA Director’s Travel Award from the College on Problems of Drug Dependence and Trainee Professional Development Award from the Society for Neuroscience. He has co-authored three peer-reviewed publications during his time in Dr. Cunningham’s laboratory in The Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, Neuropsychopharmacology, and ACS Chemical Neuroscience. Dennis proudly serves his community as co-chairperson of the Board of Directors for the Bay Area Council on Drugs and Alcohol (BACODA), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help individuals, families and communities stop drug and alcohol abuse.

Research Highlight: 
The United States is facing a critical public health challenge characterized by a rampant increase in overdose deaths attributable to prescription and illicit opioids as well as the escalating upsurge in substance use disorders related not only to opioids but also cocaine. The National Institute on Drug Abuse voiced a call to action to identify and to pursue targets for novel medications to combat this medical crisis. A recent publication by Kathryn Cunningham’s laboratory in The Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics ( established the potential for repurposing the FDA–approved drug pimavanserin as a therapeutic to reduce relapse and promote abstinence in cocaine use disorder (CUD). Using preclinical models, Sholler et al. found that pimavanserin suppressed impulsive and cocaine-seeking behaviors in rats. The marketing of pimavanserin paves the way for future studies to evaluate whether pimavanserin could improve the health status of CUD patients.

Mark Sowers

Best Student Poster Pharmacology & Toxicology Summer Symposium

Mark was born and raised in Southern California by his father, a scientist, and his mother, a classical Chinese musician. Along with his older brother, he attended Johns Hopkins University and received a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa, he matriculated into the MD-PhD program at UTMB and joined Dr. Kangling Zhang’s lab in 2018. Mark joined our program because he hopes to gain the skills to make major contributions in precision medicine. Outside of science he enjoys playing the Cello, raising his puppy, and looking after his nephew.

Research Highlight:
Mark has diverse research interests.  In his first year as a graduate student, Mark collaborated with Dr. Whitney Yin, publishing a paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society on energetic and structural factors of the mitochondrial polymerase, Pol y.  He also worked with Dr. Fernanda Laezza, publishing a paper on proteomic changes associated with neuronal ion channels involved in neuropsyciatric diseases.  In collaboration with Dr. Kangling Zhang, he published a paper on a new mass spectrometry method to measure one carbon metabolism in human cells.  Mark’s dissertation work will focus on the molecular evolution of Glioblastoma Multiforme, the most common adult brain tumor. Despite the major hurdles encountered in treating this disease, he has identified a number of new potential therapeutic targets to treat this aggressive cancer. With the aid of bioinformatics as well as a plethora of cutting-edge mass spectrometry techniques, he aims to unravel the mysteries of the tumor microenvironment’s influence in tumor cell phenotype. He believes that understanding cancer metabolism will lead to new effective and targeted therapies.