February 2011

Retrospective: Eugene Goldwasser (1922 – 2010)

Eugene Goldwasser, the Alice Hogge and Arthur A. Baer professor emeritus of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Chicago, died Dec. 17. He was 88.


Eugene Goldwasser, the Alice Hogge and Arthur A. Baer professor emeritus of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Chicago, died Dec. 17. He was 88.

Generally regarded as the father of erythropoietin, Goldwasser led the team that succeeded, after 25 years of effort, in purifying first sheep and then human erythropoietin, a discovery that has enabled millions of dialysis and anemic patients to live longer and more productive lives.

Goldwasser was born in 1922 in Brooklyn, N.Y. He developed an interest in science in high school and won a scholarship to the University of Chicago, where he majored in biology. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Goldwasser worked as a research assistant in the university’s defense-oriented toxicity laboratory, a federally funded program to assess chemical and biological risks. He completed his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry in 1943.

In 1944, Goldwasser was drafted into the United States Army. He served for two years as a biochemist at Fort Detrick, Md., working on the army’s anthrax program. In 1946, he returned to Chicago as a graduate student and went to work in the Argonne Cancer Research Hospital. Goldwasser completed his doctorate in biochemistry in 1950. He then spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow studying nucleic acids with Herman Kalckar at the Institute for Cytophysiology in Copenhagen, Denmark.

In 1952, Goldwasser returned to Chicago as an instructor in biochemistry. He stayed there for the rest of his career, rising to professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in 1963 and chairman of the department from 1984 to 1985. He retired at age 65 in 1987 but remained active in his laboratory and served again as department chairman from 1994 to 1998. He retired again in 2002.

Goldwasser started working on erythropoietin in 1955 when his mentor, Leon O. Jacobson, challenged him to isolate and purify the biochemical signal that regulated the growth of new red blood cells. By systematically removing various organs from rats and looking for the onset of anemia, Goldwasser was able to trace signal production to the kidneys. Reasoning that animals with anemia would produce more erythropoietin, he spent many years visiting a slaughterhouse outside Chicago, collecting blood from anemic sheep. But by 1971, he and his colleagues had only managed to purify six millionths of a gram of erythropoietin from 125 gallons of plasma from the sheep.
 
Looking for a better source of the hormone, Goldwasser turned to urine. The breakthrough came in 1973 when he was contacted by Takaji Miyake, a Japanese physician who had been collecting urine from people with aplastic anemia. They agreed to collaborate. Miyake was able to collect 2,550 liters of urine from his patients, which he concentrated and brought to Chicago on Christmas Day, 1975. Within 18 months the scientists managed to purify eight milligrams of erythropoietin and published their results in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

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Gene Goldwasser's remarkable success exemplifies the importance of basic research and the great value of persistence in pursuit of goals. The NIH should take pride in the fact that it is their support of this kind of investigator-initiated fundamental work that has been key to breakthroughs like EPO that can transform medical care. The fact that billions of dollars were made by a biotech company is not as important as the fact that millions of patients with renal failure have lived longer, more productively and comfortably, as a consequence of the government's investment in our collective health via NIH and NSF.

 

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