Professor Emeritus Richard Wurtman, influential figure in translational research, dies

Richard Wurtman, the Cecil H. Inexperienced Distinguished Professor Emeritus and a member of the MIT school for 44 years, died on Dec. 13. He was 86.

Wurtman obtained an MD from Harvard Medical Faculty in 1960 and skilled at Massachusetts Common Hospital earlier than becoming a member of the laboratory of Nobel laureate Julius Axelrod on the Nationwide Institutes of Well being in 1962. In 1967, MIT invited him to begin a neurochemistry and neuropharmacology program within the Division of Diet and Meals Science. Within the early Eighties he joined the newly shaped Division of Mind and Cognitive Sciences. Wurtman was additionally deeply concerned within the Nationwide Institutes of Well being-established Scientific Analysis Heart at MIT, which he additionally directed for 25 years.

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His preliminary placement in Diet and Meals Science was fortuitous, recalled Wurtman in a 2011 profile, as a result of it “sensitized me to the truth that vitamins are chemical compounds the way in which medicine are chemical compounds. A compound like folic acid is a vitamin in meals, however when given alone in larger doses it turns into a drug that safeguards the growing nervous system.”

Wurtman’s seek for new organic properties and therapeutic makes use of of recognized molecules — hormones, vitamins, or current prescribed drugs — was extremely fruitful. His analysis on the pineal gland, which began when he was a medical scholar, led to the invention that melatonin, the hormone made by the gland, regulates sleep. 

“Dick Wurtman was a pioneer in learning the position of neurotransmitters within the mind, and neuroendocrine regulation of regular and irregular mind perform,” says Newton Professor of Neuroscience Mriganka Sur, who served as head of the Division of Mind and Cognitive Sciences from 1997 to 2012. “His work on the affect of vitamin on neurotransmitters comparable to acetylcholine and on neuronal membrane synthesis laid the groundwork for later translational work on mind ailments comparable to Alzheimer’s illness.”

Wurtman’s lab found that consuming carbohydrates will increase tryptophan ranges within the mind and consequently the manufacturing of the neurotransmitter serotonin. This led to a protracted collaboration along with his spouse Judith Wurtman, an MIT analysis affiliate, by which they discovered that carbohydrates had been usually consumed by people as a type of self-medication after they skilled adjustments in temper, comparable to late within the afternoon or when affected by premenstrual syndrome (PMS). The Wurtmans’ analysis led to the event of Sarafem, the primary drug for extreme PMS, and a drink, PMS Escape, used for milder types of this syndrome.

To commercialize a few of his findings, Wurtman based Interneuron Prescription drugs in 1988; the corporate was renamed Indevus in 2002 and bought by Endo Prescription drugs in 2009.

Wurtman’s analysis superior the concept substrate availability, and never merely enzyme exercise, can management metabolic processes within the mind. He found that the dietary availability of neurotransmitter precursors (e.g., acetylcholine, dopamine, and GABA) can enhance their ranges within the mind and modulate their metabolism. Furthermore, he utilized this idea to synaptic structural parts comparable to mind phosphatides and located that dietary consumption of three rate-limiting precursors — uridine, choline, and the omega-3 fatty acid DHA — led to elevated mind phosphatide ranges, elevated dendritic backbone density, and improved reminiscence efficiency. These findings led to the event of Souvenaid, a particularly formulated multi-nutrient drink based mostly on the three important phosphatide precursors of Wurtman’s later analysis. It has been the topic of quite a few medical trials for Alzheimer’s illness, and, most lately, for age-related cognitive decline.

“Dick Wurtman was a pioneer on learning how vitamins affect mind perform,” says Li-Huei Tsai, Picower Professor of Neuroscience and director of The Picower Institute for Studying and Reminiscence. “His nutrient medical trial work and institution of the MIT Scientific Analysis Heart have been tremendously useful for my very own work on understanding how excessive doses of complement choline might probably assist scale back sure Alzheimer’s danger, and our staff’s growth of medical research at MIT to check Alzheimer’s therapies.”

“Dick’s legacy resides throughout the careers of tons of of trainees and collaborators he launched or enhanced, the 1,000-plus revealed analysis articles, his quite a few patent awards, and individuals who benefited from his therapeutic approaches,” says former postdoc Bertha Madras, now a professor of psychobiology at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical Faculty. “But, these quantitative metrics, legacies of analysis and mentoring, don’t illustrate the charitable qualities of this outstanding man. I witnessed his deep mind, boundless vitality, enthusiasm, optimism, and generosity towards trainees, qualities that helped to maintain me throughout crests and troughs encountered within the adventures of a scientific profession. Dr. Richard Wurtman was a inventive, sensible scientist, a mentor, a faithful husband to his beloved spouse.”

“Dick was an inspiration, a motivation, and a information to all his college students and colleagues in shaping ideas to be exact and purposeful,” says Tony Nader PhD ’89, who did his doctoral analysis with Wurtman. “His rigorous scientific strategy and the applying of his findings have contributed to make life higher. His legacy is big.”

Richard and Judith Wurtman have additionally made a long-lasting philanthropic affect at MIT. They endowed a professorship within the Division of Mind and Cognitive Sciences in honor of the late Institute Professor and provost Walter Rosenblith; the chair was held first by Ann Graybiel, who’s now an Institute Professor; Nancy Kanwisher is the present Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience. The Wurtmans have additionally been longtime supporters of MIT Hillel.

Elazer R. Edelman, the Edward J. Poitras Professor in Medical Engineering and Science at MIT, professor of drugs at Harvard Medical Faculty, and director of the MIT Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, remembers that Wurtman was additionally supportive of the Harvard-MIT Program in Well being Sciences and Know-how: “He modified our faculty and our world — he and Judith coupled immense charity with distinctive mind and so they made us all higher for it.”

Richard Wurtman is survived by his spouse, Judith; daughter Rachael; son David and daughter-in-law Jean Chang; and grandchildren Dvora Toren, Yael Toren and Jacob Vider. 


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