Professor Emeritus Richard Wurtman, influential figure in translational research, dies at 86 | MIT News

Cecil H. Green Distinguished Professor Emeritus and a member of the MIT faculty for 44 years, Richard Wurtman died on December 13. He was 86 years old.

Wurtman earned an MD from Harvard Medical School in 1960 and trained at Massachusetts General Hospital before joining Nobel laureate Julius Axelrod’s lab at the National Institutes of Health in 1962. In 1967, MIT invited him to start a neurochemistry and neuropharmacology program at the Department. Nutrition and Food Science. He joined the newly formed Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences in the early 1980s. Wurtman was also deeply involved in the National Institutes of Health’s Clinical Research Center at MIT, which he directed for 25 years.

In a profile from 2011, Wurtman recalled that its initial placement in Nutrition and Food Science was accidental, because “it made me sensitive to the fact that food is chemical just as medicine is chemical. A compound like folic acid is a vitamin found in foods, but alone When given in higher doses, it becomes a drug that protects the developing nervous system.”

Wurtman’s search for new biological properties and therapeutic uses of known molecules – hormones, nutrients or existing pharmaceuticals – was fruitful. His research on the pineal gland as a medical student led him to discover that melatonin, the hormone produced by the gland, regulates sleep.

“Dick Wurtman was a pioneer in studying the role of neurotransmitters in the brain and the neuroendocrine regulation of normal and abnormal brain function,” says Newton Professor of Neuroscience Mriganka Sur, who served as head of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences from 1997 to 1997. 2012. “His work on the effect of nutrition on neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine and neuronal membrane synthesis laid the groundwork for later translational studies on brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.”

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Wurtman’s lab discovered that consuming carbohydrates increases tryptophan levels in the brain and thus the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin. This led to a long collaboration with his wife, Judith Wurtman, an MIT research organization, where they discovered that carbohydrates are often consumed as a self-medication by individuals when they experience mood swings, such as in the late afternoon or when. suffering from premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Wurtmans’ research led to the development of Sarafem, the first drug for severe PMS, and PMS Escape, a beverage used for milder forms of this syndrome.

To commercialize some of his findings, Wurtman founded Interneuron Pharmaceuticals in 1988; The company was renamed Indevus in 2002 and was acquired by Endo Pharmaceuticals in 2009.

Wurtman’s research developed the idea that substrate availability, not just enzyme activity, could control metabolic processes in the brain. He discovered that the dietary presence of neurotransmitter precursors (for example, acetylcholine, dopamine, and GABA) can increase their levels in the brain and regulate their metabolism. He also applied this concept to synaptic structural components such as brain phosphatide and found that dietary intake of three rate-limiting precursors (uridine, choline, and the omega-3 fatty acid DHA) resulted in increased brain phosphatide levels and dendritic spine density. and improved memory performance. These findings led to the development of Souvenaid, a specially formulated highly nutritious beverage based on three key phosphatide precursors of Wurtman’s later research. It has been the subject of numerous clinical trials for Alzheimer’s disease and, more recently, for age-related cognitive decline.

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“Dick Wurtman was a pioneer in studying how food affects brain function,” says Li-Huei Tsai, Picower Professor of Neuroscience and director of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. “The nutritious clinical research study and establishment of the MIT Clinical Research Center has been extremely helpful to my own work and our team at MIT to develop clinical trials to test for Alzheimer’s in understanding how high doses of supplemental choline can potentially help reduce the risk of certain Alzheimer’s. . therapies.”

“Dick’s legacy lies in the careers of hundreds of interns and collaborators he initiated or developed, in more than 1,000 published research papers, numerous patent awards, and people who have benefited from his therapeutic approaches,” says former postdoc Bertha Madras, now a professor. Department of psychobiology at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “Still, these quantitative metrics, a legacy of research and mentorship, do not demonstrate the philanthropic qualities of this extraordinary man. I witnessed his deep intelligence, boundless energy, enthusiasm, optimism and generosity towards trainees, qualities that kept me going through the ups and downs I encountered in the adventures of his scientific career. Dr. Richard Wurtman was an inventive, brilliant scientist, mentor, and devoted husband to his beloved wife.”

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“Dick was an inspiration, motivation and guide to all of his students and colleagues in shaping thought to be precise and purposeful,” says Tony Nader PhD ’89, who did his PhD research with Wurtman. “His rigorous scientific approach and application of his findings have contributed to making life better. His legacy is immense.”

Richard and Judith Wurtman also made a lasting philanthropic impact at MIT. They donated a professorship in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences in honor of the late Institute Professor and surrogate Walter Rosenblith; the chair was first held by Ann Graybiel, now Professor of the Institute; Nancy Kanwisher is the current Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience. The Wurtmans are also longtime MIT Hillel supporters.

Elazer R. Edelman, the Edward J. Poitras Professor of Medical Engineering and Science at MIT, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and director of the MIT Institute of Medical Engineering and Science, recalls that Wurtman also supported Harvard-MIT. Health Sciences and Technology Program: “She changed our school and our world – she and Judith combined tremendous philanthropy with extraordinary intelligence and made us all better.”

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

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