Statins pioneer Akira Endo dies aged 90

By Michelle RobertsDigital health editor

AFP Akira EndoAFP

The Japanese scientist whose pioneering work led to the creation of statins, the life-saving drugs used by millions, has died at the age of 90.

Akira Endo’s pivotal work has been likened to the discovery of penicillin.

The biochemist is said to have been inspired by Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, prompting him to study mould, or fungi, in his quest to find new medicines.

In 1973, Prof Endo found the first cholesterol-lowering compound able to reduce the risk of heart disease and strokes.

Paying tribute, Prof Bryan Williams, chief scientific and medical officer at the British Heart Foundation, described the professor as “a remarkable scientist”.

“This really was the forerunner to the development of statin drugs,” he told BBC News, adding: “They have absolutely transformed the prevention of heart disease and stroke.”

“There’s very few treatments in medicine that have happened in the past few years that have had such a dramatic impact.”

Unlike Dr Fleming though, his discovery did not earn the professor a Nobel prize.

“Amazingly, the man who began the process of working out how to deal with the problem of cholesterol – and provided a treatment that benefited and saved the lives of many, many millions of people never got the prize,” said Prof Williams.

“I think that’s a shame.”

Doctors now routinely prescribe statins to people who have had a heart attack, and those who are at high risk of heart disease or stroke.

The drugs are estimated to save thousands of lives each year in the UK alone, and even more worldwide.

Cholesterol is a fatty material, chiefly made in the liver, which is carried and transported in the blood.

People need some cholesterol to maintain good health, but too much “bad” cholesterol can clog the arteries and interrupt blood flow.

Statins help lower “bad” cholesterol in the blood and keep the vessels clear of any fatty build-up.

Years of study

Prof Endo was born in rural Japan in 1933, and went on to study biochemistry at Tokohu University.

It was while working for the pharmaceutical company, Sankyo, in Tokyo in 1973 that he made his big discovery.

It took many years of studying thousands of fungi before finding one that lowered cholesterol.

First attempts at harnessing it proved too toxic to give to patients. Other pharmaceutical companies then began to search for similar compounds.

And in September 1987 the first statin – lovastatin – was approved in the US for clinical use.

Fungi have spawned some of our most important drugs – most famously, the antibiotic penicillin.

It was found by chance by Dr Fleming in 1928, when he returned from holiday to find mould growing in a Petri dish containing bacteria. He noticed the mould produced a chemical that appeared to stop the bacteria growing. That substance came to be known as penicillin.

Similarly, the fungus-derived cyclosporine has revolutionised transplant medicine since its discovery in the 1970s, helping to prevent donor organs from being rejected by the body.

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