Sune Karl Bergström Biography (1916-)


Sune Karl Bergström is best known for his research on prostaglandins. These substances, which were first discovered in the prostate gland and seminalvesicles, were found by Bergström and his colleagues to affect circulation, smooth muscle tissue, and general metabolism in ways that can be medically beneficial. Certain prostaglandins, for example, lower blood pressure, while others prevent the formation of ulcers on the stomach lining. For his research, Bergström shared the 1982 Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology with John R. Vane and Bengt Samuelson.

Sune Bergström was born in Stockholm on January 10, 1916, to Sverker andWera (Wistrand) Bergström. Upon completion of high school he went to work at the Karolinska Institute as an assistant to the biochemist Erik Jorpes.The young Bergström was assigned to do research on the biochemistry offats and steroids. Jorpes was impressed enough with his assistant to sponsora year-long research fellowship for Bergström in 1938 at the Universityof London. While there, Bergström focused his research on bile acid, a steroid produced by the liver which aids in the digestion of cholesterol and similar substances.

Bergström had planned to continue his research in Edinburgh the following year thanks to a British Council fellowship, but the fellowship was canceled after World War II broke out. He did, however, receive a Swedish-American Fellowship in 1940, which allowed him to study for two years at Columbia University and to conduct research at the Squibb Institute for Medical Research inNew Jersey. At Squibb, Bergström researched the steroid cholesterol , particularly its reaction to chemical combination with oxygen at room temperature, a process called auto-oxidation .

Bergström returned to Sweden in 1942, receiving doctorates in medicine and biochemistry from the Karolinska Institute two years later. He was appointed assistant in the biochemistry department of Karolinska's Medical Nobel Institute. While there, he continued experiments with auto-oxidation, working with linoleic acid , which is found in some vegetable oils. He discovered a particular enzyme was responsible for the oxidation of linoleic acid, and helpedattempt to purify the enzyme while working with biochemist Hugo Theorell.

While attending a meeting of Karolinska's Physiological Society in 1945, Bergström met the physiologist Ulf von Euler . Von Euler, who was better known as the discoverer of the hormone norepinephrine, had been doing research on prostaglandins. Scientists had observed in the 1930s that seminal fluid used in artificial insemination stimulated contraction and subsequent relaxationin the smooth muscles of the uterus. Von Euler isolated a substance from theseminal fluid of sheep and found it had the same effect in relaxing the smooth muscle of blood vessels. Impressed with Bergström's work on enzyme purification, von Euler gave him some of the extract for further purification.

Bergström began initial experiments but put his work on hold when in 1946 he was named a research fellow at the University of Basel. Returning from Switzerland in 1947, he was appointed professor of physiological chemistry atthe University of Lund. His first task was to help revitalize the university's research facilities, which had fallen into disuse during the war. Afterwards, he resumed his research on prostaglandins, assisted by graduate students such as Bengt Samuelson. Working with new large supplies of sheep seminal fluid, Bergström and his colleagues were able to isolate and purify two prostaglandins by 1957. Bergström was appointed professor of chemistry at Karolinska a year later, and brought his research on prostaglandins and his collaboration with Samuelson with him. By 1962, six prostaglandins, identified as A through F, had been identified.

Bergström and Samuelson then worked on determining how prostaglandins are formed. They discovered that prostaglandins are formed from common fatty acids , and further identified specific functions performed by each prostaglandin. Over the next few years, Bergström and Samuelson surmised that certain prostaglandins could be used to treat high blood pressure, blocked arteries, and other circulatory problems by relaxing muscle tissue. These prostaglandins were also shown to prevent ulceration of the stomach lining and to protect against side effects of such drugs as aspirin, long known to irritate thestomach lining. Other prostaglandins could be used to raise blood pressure orstimulate uterine muscle by their contracting effect.

Bergström remained at Karolinska, serving as dean of its medical schoolfrom 1963 to 1966 and as rector of the institute from 1969 to 1977. He was chairman of the Nobel Foundation's Board of Directors from 1975 to 1987, and from 1977 to 1982 he served as chairman of the World Health Organization's Advisory Committee on Medical Research. He retired from teaching in 1981, choosing to devote his full time to research at Karolinska.

A modest, reserved man, Bergström's reaction upon learning of his Nobelaward was gratitude--first, that his colleagues appreciated his efforts, andsecond, that his former student Samuelson had also been named. The book Nobel Prize Winners reports him as saying that there is "no greater satisfaction than seeing your students successful." His connection with the Nobel Foundation had led some to wonder whether he might be passed over for a prizeof his own. But the New York Times, reporting on the 1982 awards, noted that "it was only a matter of time, most scientists agree, before Dr. Bergström's research would be honored by the foundation he directs--for thework was too important to be ignored through any concern over apparent conflicts of interest."

The scientist married the former Maj Gernandt in Sweden in 1943; the couple has one son. Bergström's memberships include the Royal Swedish Academy ofScience (he served as its president from 1983 to 1985), the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Other awards given to Bergström besides the Nobel include the Albert Lasker Award in 1977, Oslo University's Anders Jahre Prize in Medicine in 1970, and Columbia'sLouisa Gross Horwitz Prize in 1975.

Recent Updates

August 15, 2004: Bergstrom died on August 15, 2004, in Sweden after along illness. He was 88. Source: New York Times,, August 17, 2004.

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