Thick and thin: a tale of friendships and findings

Philip W. Majerus (right) and P. Roy Vagelos after Majerus was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1986.

You’ve probably seen the television commercials that go something like this: A healthy-looking middle-aged woman, likely on the tennis court or grocery shopping, reminds you to talk to your doctor – like she did – about how regularly taking a low dose of aspirin can lower your risk for heart attack, stroke and blood clots.

You’ve probably known someone on a low-dose aspirin regimen. You might know someone who is alive today because of it. You even might have tossed back your dose this morning.

What you might not have heard is that the researcher who first proposed the low-dose aspirin therapy that saves thousands of lives every year and who delineated the role of platelets in blood clotting and thrombosis recently shared his story in the pages of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

In a “Reflections” article published in the Feb. 18 issue of the JBC, Philip W. Majerus, a longtime professor in the hematology division of Washington University in St. Louis, modestly retraces the highlights of his career.

Majerus begins his tale, “Wandering Through the Laboratory,” by recounting an important period as a research associate in the then-National Heart Institute’s biochemistry laboratory headed by Earl Stadtman. It was during that time that he formed a close and lasting bond with section leader P. Roy Vagelos.

Majerus then takes readers into his domain at Washington University, where he joined the faculty in 1966 and has remained ever since. It was there that he and colleague Stuart Kornfeld learned hematology together and forged a lifelong friendship.

Majerus writes: “When I got to St. Louis, I continued my studies of the structure and function of acyl carrier protein. It soon became clear, however, that working on fatty-acid synthesis in E. coli was not going to cut it in a hematology division. So, Kornfeld and I made a conscious effort to switch to research in hematology.”

As fate would have it, Vagelos soon joined the university’s ranks too, as biochemistry chairman.

Long story short, Majerus and colleagues eventually delineated the mechanism by which aspirin affects platelet function, defined the scope of inositol signaling reactions and accomplished a number of other scientific feats. Yet despite the hugely impactful nature of his career, Majerus tells his story in the JBC quite matter-of-factly.

Of his aspirin work, he humbly writes: “Late one afternoon, I looked in the St. Louis phone directory for aspirin and found a company in town, Rexall, that made aspirin tablets. I called after hours, and a man answered the phone. I explained what I wanted: 100 bottles of 160 mg aspirin and the same of a matched placebo. The man said he could make them without any problem and would deliver them to my lab the next morning at no charge. Thus, we did the first randomized, controlled trial of aspirin for prevention of thrombosis – and it worked.”

Then again, for Majerus, that was only one peak in a long career full of summits. And, he emphasizes, so much work still remains to be done.

Angela Hopp (ahopp@asbmb.org) is managing editor for special projects of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

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