Laid groundwork for cholesterol drugs – From ham radios to Nobel Prize for local scientist

Local Life October 10, 2013 0 Comments

Nobel Prize winner Dr. Michael S. Brown, who grew up in Elkins Park and graduated from Cheltenham High School, was welcomed to Chestnut Hill College on Sept. 11 by Lakshmi Atchison, professor of biology at CHC (right) and Sr. Carol Jean Vale, CHC president (left). Dr. Brown was invited to CHC in order to expose students to cutting-edge research in the biomedical field.

by Sue Ann Rybak

A Nobel Laureate recently spoke about “How to win a Nobel Prize” on Sept. 11 at Chestnut Hill College’s 20th anniversary of its Biomedical Lecture Series. Dr. Michael S. Brown, 72, who grew up in Elkins Park, said an amateur radio operating license obtained at the age of 13, while a student at Thomas Williams Junior High School in Wyncote, sparked his passion for science.

In an interview with the Local prior to Brown’s presentation, the Cheltenham High School graduate said he and a friend used to build their equipment from various parts or kits. “I would usually finish around 3 a.m.,” Brown said. “I would plug it in and blow every fuse in the house. My parents were not very happy with this hobby. What made it scientific was you had to go back over the entire thing step by step and figure out what you had done wrong. And that’s the essence of science because experiments never work the first time.”

He said it was a good introduction into science. “I wish we didn’t have courses called science with a capital ‘S.’ It’s ridiculous. Science isn’t something that is dictated by some text book. There is science in cooking. There is science in everything. In fabrics in the clothes we are wearing. There is science in every aspect of our lives.”

Brown and his longtime colleague Dr. Joseph Goldstein received the 1985 Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine “for their discoveries concerning the regulation of cholesterol metabolism.” Their findings led to the development of statin drugs, the cholesterol-lowering compounds that are used by millions of Americans as some of the most widely prescribed medications in the U.S., helping to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

The Biomedical Lecture series was created by Lakshmi Atchison, professor of biology at Chestnut Hill College, to expose students to cutting-edge research in the biomedical field. Sr. Carol Jean Vale, Chestnut Hill College president, said the series is unique because it provides students the opportunity to interact with prominent scientific and medical professionals. Before the lecture, Brown met with faulty and science students for an afternoon tea followed by a Q & A session.

“While we learn a great deal from textbooks and glean important lessons from experiments, nothing teaches us as well as the example of great teachers who are also great human beings,” Vale said.

Brown said he saw his role as a physician not only to heal patients but also to understand why some people develop diseases and others don’t. “Joe and I shared an interest in understanding the basic biology of disease,” said Brown, whose friendship with Goldstein spans over four decades.

While working as fellows at the National Institutes of Health, Brown and Goldstein were confronted daily by rare medical cases. But one case involving a six and eight-year-old sister and brother suffering from heart attacks became the basis of their award-winning research.

The children had familial hypercholesterolemia, a genetic disease in which excess cholesterol accumulates in blood and tissues. After running tests, Brown and Goldstein discovered that the children’s cholesterol level was 1000 mg, 10 times the rate of a normal child. They placed the children on a no-cholesterol diet of rice and vegetables, but after six months there was no change in the patients’ test results.

“We were extremely frustrated as physicians that there was nothing we could do for them,” Brown said. “For some reason other physicians and scientists weren’t thinking seriously about this condition. They just looked at these children as some sort of far-end spectrum of cholesterol.”

Both Brown and Goldstein believed the abnormally high cholesterol levels, which were causing the heart attacks, were the result of genetics. “Nobody knew anything about any genes back in the early ’70s,” Brown said. “The idea that you could clone DNA and have a piece of a gene in your hand was unbelievably foreign. If you would have told me that in 1972, it would have been the same as me telling you that in the next 20 years we will have a colony of men living on Mars. It was just that incredible.”

After 10 years of research, Brown and Goldstein discovered that people have receptors on their cells that remove LDL (“bad cholesterol”) from the blood, but people with familial hypercholesterolemia have mutations in their genes that inhibit the cells from absorbing the cholesterol. The build-up of cholesterol ultimately leads to blockages in arteries and can cause heart attacks.

In Brown’s presentation “How to Win a Nobel Prize,” he discussed how his relationships, decisions and love of learning led him to eventually win the Nobel prize.

“Be curious.

Train with a Nobel prizewinner.

Find a partner with whom to share the adventure.

Find a problem that fascinates you.

Find someone to pay for your work.

Work very hard.

Solve the problem.

Be lucky.

Pick the right spouse.”

The presentation, which was meant to be both entertaining and enlightening, focused predominantly on the important role of forming life-long partnerships and passion for learning. “Unfortunately, people think science is an I.Q. Test,” Brown said. “People who go into science think it’s an individual sport that shouldn’t be shared with anybody.”

And what happened to the children with familial hypercholesterolemia? Brown later learned that while the little boy had died, his six-year-old sister was still alive. After Brown and Goldstein were able to discover what was causing their high cholesterol level, other doctors developed a machine to help remove the cholesterol from her blood.

“There is hope,” said Brown, “and if you understand what the cause of the thing is, then people with ingenuity will find ways to use that information to treat people.”

Update 10/10/13 —  An earlier version of this article erroneously stated  ”A Nobel Laureate recently spoke about “Why Hearts Attack.”

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