D. Carleton Gajdusek Biography (1923-)


Gajdusek was born in Yonkers, New York, on September 9, 1923, the son of Hungarian immigrants. His parents provided a rich intellectual environment at home, and Gajdusek became interested in science at an early age. While still inhigh school, he spent summers working at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research in Yonkers. Gajdusek entered the University of Rochester in 1940at the age of 16. He graduated with a bachelor of science degree in biophysics three years later. In 1946, he also received an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.

In the eight years following graduation from Harvard, Gajdusek completed residencies in Boston, Massachusetts, and New York City, New York, worked for twoyears at the California Institute of Technology with Linus Pauling, did research in virology at Harvard with John Enders, served in the United States Army at the Walter Reed Medical Center, and continued his studies in Iran at thePasteur Institute. Finally, in 1954, he moved to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia, to carry out additionalresearch in virology.

During his tenure at the Hall Institute, Gajdusek learned about an unusual disease that infected members of the Fore tribe in New Guinea. The disease--called kuru--caused a slow, but ultimately fatal, degeneration of the brain andhad never been studied by medical scientists. Gajdusek decided to travel to New Guinea, where he spent a year learning more about kuru.

Gajdusek spent much of the next decade trying to discover the causative agentfor kuru. He felt sure that the disease was caused by a virus. An importantclue was that the Fore, in a ritualistic practice, honored their dead by eating their brains. Gajdusek reasoned that this practice would be an ideal mechanism by which a viral infection could be transmitted from one person to another.

However, standard techniques for identifying viruses produced no results in this case. For a while, Gajdusek considered the possibility that kuru might bea hereditary disorder rather than an infectious disease.

In 1963 another possibility occurred to him. He realized that kuru was similar in some ways to scrapie, a neurological disorder that affects sheep. Scrapie begins to appear in sheep long after they have been infected. The incubation period can be many years. Scientists believed that scrapie was caused by anunusual type of virus that acts extremely slowly.

Gajdusek considered the possibility that kuru is also caused by a slow-actingvirus. To test this hypothesis, he implanted pieces taken from the brains ofkuru victims into apes. More than two years later, the disease began to appear in the apes. Evidence for the existence of a scrapie-like, slow-moving viral infection appeared to exist.

Gajdusek's success with his kuru research prompted him to attack other unexplained brain diseases. In 1971, he found that a slow-moving virus might also be responsible for Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, a degenerative brain disorder that occurs throughout the world. For his work on slow-moving viruses, Gajdusek received a share of the 1976 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine.

Some scientists now believe that the slow-moving virus responsible for scrapie, kuru, and Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease is actually a new type of infectious particle called a prion. First suggested in 1982 by American neurologist Stanley Prusiner (1942- ), the prion is thought to be a naked piece of protein that has the ability to cause certain types of viral-like diseases.

In 1997, Gajdusek admitted in a Maryland circuit court that he had sexually molested a 17-year-old boy. The boy was one of more than 50 children he had brought back to the United States since the 1960s from the South Pacific. Thesechildren often lived with Gajdusek, who financed their educations. As a partof his plea bargain, Gajdusek received a one-year prison sentence and five years probation. While he has been sued in civil court for $2.2 million by oneof the boys he took in, others he adopted rallied around Gajdusek and supported him during his trial. He retired from his position as chief of the Laboratory of Central Nervous Systems at the National Institutes of Health in 1997.

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