Richard Wurtman, Distinguished Professor Emeritus Cecil H. Greene, an MIT faculty member for 44 years, died on December 13. He was 86 years old.
Wurtman earned his MD from Harvard Medical School in 1960 and trained at Massachusetts General Hospital before joining Nobel laureate Julius Axelrod’s laboratory at the National Institutes of Health in 1962. In 1967, MIT invited him to start a program in neurochemistry and neuropharmacology. of nutrition and food science. In the early 1980s, he joined the newly formed Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Wurtman was also deeply involved in the Center for Clinical Research at MIT that he founded at the National Institutes of Health, which he also directed for 25 years.
His entry into the field of nutrition and food science was serendipitous, Wurtman recalled in a 2011 profile, because it “sensitized me to the fact that nutrients are chemicals like drugs are chemicals. A compound like folic acid is a vitamin in food, but when given on its own in larger doses it becomes a drug that protects the developing nervous system.
Wurtmann’s search for new biological properties and therapeutic uses of known molecules—hormones, nutrients, or existing pharmaceuticals—was very fruitful. His research on the pineal gland, which began when he was a medical student, led to the discovery that melatonin, a hormone produced by the gland, regulates sleep.
“Dick Wurtman was a pioneer in the study of 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 chaired the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences from 1997 to 2012. “His work on the impact nutrition on neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine and on neuronal membrane synthesis laid the groundwork for later translational work on brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s.”
Wurtman’s lab found that consuming carbohydrates increases tryptophan levels in the brain and consequently the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin. This led to a long collaboration with his wife, Judith Wurtman, an MIT research affiliate, in which they discovered that carbohydrates were often consumed by individuals as a form of self-medication when they experienced mood swings, such as late afternoon or when suffering from premenstrual syndrome. syndrome (PMS). The Wurtmans’ research led to the development of Sarafem, the first drug for severe PMS, and a drink, PMS Escape, used for milder forms of the syndrome.
To commercialize some of his discoveries, Wurtman founded Interneuron Pharmaceuticals in 1988; the company was renamed Indevus in 2002 and acquired Endo Pharmaceuticals in 2009.
Wurtman’s research advanced the idea that substrate availability, not just enzyme activity, could control metabolic processes in the brain. He discovered that dietary availability of neurotransmitter precursors (eg, acetylcholine, dopamine, and GABA) can increase their levels in the brain and modulate their metabolism. Furthermore, he applied this concept to synaptic structural components such as phosphatides in the brain and found that feeding three rate-limiting precursors—uridine, choline, and the omega-3 fatty acid DHA—led to increased brain phosphatide levels, increased dendritic spine density . and improved memory performance. These findings led to the development of Souvenaid, a specially formulated multi-nutrient drink based on three essential phosphatide precursors from Wurtmann’s later research. It has been the subject of numerous clinical trials for Alzheimer’s disease and, most recently, for age-related cognitive decline.
“Dick Wurtman pioneered the study of how nutrients affect brain function,” says Li-Huei Tsai, Picover Professor of Neuroscience and director of the Picover Institute for Learning and Memory. “His work on nutrient clinical trials and the establishment of the MIT Clinical Research Center were extremely helpful to my work in understanding how high-dose choline supplementation could potentially help reduce some risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and the development of our team’s clinical studies at MIT- in to test Alzheimer’s disease therapies.”
“Dick’s legacy lies in the careers of the hundreds of trainees and collaborators he initiated or enhanced, the more than 1,000 published research articles, his numerous patent awards, and the people who benefited from his therapeutic approaches,” says former postdoc Bertha Madras, now a professor of psychobiology at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “Yet these quantitative metrics, a legacy of research and mentorship, do not illustrate the charitable qualities of this extraordinary man.” I have witnessed his deep intellect, boundless energy, enthusiasm, optimism and generosity towards his students, qualities that have helped me sustain myself during the highs and lows I encounter in the adventures of a scientific career. Dr. Richard Wurtman was a creative, brilliant scientist, mentor, devoted husband to his beloved wife.”
“Dick was an inspiration, a motivator and a guide to all his students and colleagues in shaping thought to be precise and purposeful,” says Tony Nader, Ph.D. ’89, who did his doctoral research with Wurtman. “His rigorous scientific approach and the application of his discoveries contributed to making life better.” His legacy is enormous.”
Richard and Judith Wurtman have also made a lasting philanthropic impact on MIT. They endowed a professorship in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences in honor of the late Institute Professor and Chancellor Walter Rosenblith; the chair was first held by Ann Graybill, who is now a professor at the institute; Nanci Kanwisher is the current Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience. The Wurtmans were also longtime supporters of MIT Hillel.
Elazer R. Edelman, Edward J. Poitras Professor of Medical Engineering and Science at MIT, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Director of the MIT Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, recalls that Wurtman also supported the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology Program: “He changed our school and our world — he and Judith combined enormous charity with extraordinary intellect and made us all better for it.”
Richard Wurtman is survived by his wife, Judith; daughter Rachael; son David and daughter-in-law Jean Chang; and grandchildren Dvora Torren, Yael Torren and Jacob Wieder.