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Dr. Sune Bergstrom, 88; Won Nobel for Work on Natural Chemicals

August 18, 2004|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

Dr. Sune Karl Bergstrom, the Nobel laureate who was the first to isolate and identify a family of natural chemicals involved in such disparate functions as birth, blood clotting and pain control, died Sunday in his native Sweden. He was 88.

His family said he had suffered from an undisclosed illness for a long time.

Bergstrom shared the 1982 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Bengt I. Samuelsson of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm and John R. Vane of the Wellcome Laboratories in Britain for the discovery of the structures and functions of a family of chemicals called prostaglandins, which play a crucial role in tissues throughout the body.

Prostaglandins and drugs derived from them have since become widely used in birth control, abortions, controlling pain, preventing blood clots, preventing and healing peptic ulcers and a host of other applications. The Nobel laureates' studies also solved the long-standing mystery of how aspirin works. It turns out that aspirin blocks the production of a particular prostaglandin that is involved in producing pain.

The 1982 prize was awarded to Bergstrom and his colleagues even though, at the time, he was chairman of the Nobel Foundation, which is in charge of selecting Nobel recipients. The importance of their discovery was so self-evident that there were no claims of conflict of interest. Most scientists, in fact, questioned why the foundation had waited so long.

Prostaglandins were discovered in 1936 by Swedish biochemist Ulf von Euler, who observed their activity in seminal fluid from a variety of species, including humans. He called them prostaglandins because he mistakenly believed that they were produced by the prostate. Euler observed that the chemicals could stimulate smooth muscles to contract.

In the 1950s, Euler gave a sample of seminal fluid to Bergstrom, then a young chemist at the Karolinska. Bergstrom and his students purified two major forms of the hormone, called prostaglandin E and prostaglandin F, and demonstrated how they were produced in the body from unsaturated fatty acids.

The widespread importance of the prostaglandins are indicated by Bergstrom and others' discovery that the hormones are not stored but are produced by tissues throughout the body for use as needed.

The prostaglandins are unusual in that they come in pairs with opposite activities. One prostaglandin, for example, causes smooth muscles to contract, while another causes them to dilate. One causes blood platelets to clot; another prevents them from clotting.

Once the initial discoveries were complete, Bergstrom shifted his focus to the use of prostaglandins in birth control in developing countries. He organized clinical trials of various birth control drugs, especially in India.

As recently as a year ago, he still talked enthusiastically about the trials, which by then were being conducted by his students, said Dr. David Hamburg, president emeritus of the Carnegie Corp. of New York.

That interest led Bergstrom into the areas of tropical diseases and problems of nutrition, and he spent five years as chairman of the World Health Organization's Advisory Committee on Medical Research. In that role, he established extensive networks of researchers working on the health problems of developing countries.

"He should have gotten a second Nobel for those efforts," Hamburg said Tuesday.

Born in Stockholm, Bergstrom earned his medical degree at the Karolinska Institutet.

Bergstrom married Maj Gernandt in 1943, and "he was totally devoted to his family," Hamburg said. The couple had one son.

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