Roger Guillemin Biography (1924-)


Roger Guillemin is one of the founders of the field of neuroendocrinology, the study of the interaction between the central nervous system (such asthe brain) and endocrine glands (such as the pituitary , thyroid, and pancreas). Guillemin focused his research on hormones produced by the brain, and their subsequent effect on body processes. He proved the correctness of a hypothesis first proposed by English anatomist Geoffrey W. Harris that the hypothalamus releases hormones to regulate the pituitary gland. For discoveries which led to an understanding of hypothalamic hormone productions of the brain, Guillemin and fellow endocrinologist Andrew V. Schally shared the 1977Nobel prize for physiology or medicine with physicist Rosalyn Sussman Yalow. Guillemin and Schally were pioneers in isolating, identifying, and determining the chemical nature of such hormones as TRF (thyrotropin-releasing factor which regulates the thyroid gland ), LRF (luteinizing-releasing factorwhich controls male and female reproductive functions), somatostatin (which regulates the production of growth hormones and insulin), and endorphins (which may be involved in the onset of mental illness). Guillemin's work led to scientific advances including an understanding of thyroid diseases, infertility, juvenile diabetes, and the physiology of the brain. According to Guillemin,the determination of the chemical structure of TRF marked an end to the pioneering era in neuroendocrinology and the beginning of a major new science.

Roger Charles Louis Guillemin was born on January 11, 1924, and raised in Dijon, France, the son of Raymond Guillemin, a machine toolmaker, and Blanche Rigollot Guillemin. He attended the University of Dijon where he received a Bachelor's degree in 1942, and then entered the University of Lyons medical school, graduating with a medical degree in 1949. However, Guillemin interruptedhis studies during World War II in order to join the French underground during the Nazi occupation, becoming part of an operation helping refugees escapeto Switzerland over the Jura Mountains. During and after the war Guillemin received three years of clinical training and briefly practiced medicine beforejoining a well-known Canadian physiologist, Hans Selye , as a research assistant. To work with Selye, Guillemin moved to the Institute of Experimental Medicine and Surgery at the University of Montreal in Canada. In 1950, he suffered a near-fatal attack of tubercular meningitis. After his recovery in 1951, Guillemin married Lucienne Jeanne Billard, who had been his nurse during his illness. They had six children, five daughters--Chantal, Claire, Helene, Elizabeth, and Cecile, and a son François.

Guillemin received his Ph.D. from the University of Montreal in 1953, and accepted an assistant professorship at Baylor University Medical School in Houston, Texas. His research involved endocrinology, the study of the hormones that circulate in the blood. The endocrine system is a hierarchical one in which hormones from the pituitary gland regulate other endocrine glands. Itwas thought that the head of the entire system was the hypothalamus, locatedat the base of the brain just above the pituitary gland. However, the way inwhich hypothalamic hormonal regulation occurred was unclear. The theory of regulation by nerve impulses was marred by the anatomical fact that there arefew nerves that extend from the hypothalamus to the pituitary. Anatomist Geoffrey W. Harris theorized that hypothalamic regulation occurred by means of hormones, which are transported by the blood. Harris's experiments supported his hypothesis, proving altered pituitary function when the blood vessels werecut between the hypothalamus and the pituitary. The problem was that no one had yet been successful in isolating and identifying a hormone from the hypothalamus.

Guillemin began an investigation to find the missing evidence, a task of extraordinary difficulty because very minute amounts of hypothalamic substances are involved. At Baylor, Guillemin worked together with Schally using a technique called mass spectroscopy and a new tool developed by physicists Solomon Berson and Rosalyn Sussman Yalow called radioimmunoassays (RIAs) whichenabled scientists to isolate and identify the chemical structure of hormones. In the early 1960s Guillemin considered continuing his research in France,and obtained a concurrent appointment at both Baylor and the Collège de France in Paris. However, he left the Collège de France in 1963, andwas appointed director of the Laboratory for Neuroendocrinology at Baylor University. By this time he and Schally had ended their scientific cooperationand had become fiercely competitive in a race to identify hypothalamic hormones.

Guillemin worked with sheep hypothalami which he obtained from slaughterhouses. Obtaining the specimens was a large-scale, difficult operation. Only veryminute amounts of substance existed in each sheep hypothalamus and it had tobe extracted very soon after death. Guillemin and Roger Burgus, a chemist whoworked with Guillemin, reported that their laboratory collected about five million hypothalamic fragments from sheep brains, which involved handling about five hundred tons of brain tissue. Finally in 1968, Guillemin and his coworkers isolated the hypothalamic hormone that effects the release of thyrotropin. The following year Guillemin, as well as Schally, who had been working independently, revealed the structure of TRF (a hypothalamic hormone which todayis called thyrotropin-releasing hormone or TRH). When TRF is secreted by thehypothalamus, it causes the pituitary gland to secrete another hormone thatin turn causes the thyroid gland to secrete its own hormones. Shortly thereafter Guillemin and his colleagues isolated and determined the chemical structure of GRH (growth-releasing-hormone), a hypothalamic hormone that causes thepituitary to release gonadotropin which in turn influences the release of hormones in the testicles or ovaries. This discovery led to advancements in themedical treatment of infertility.

In 1970 Guillemin moved to the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. Therehe isolated a third hypothalamic hormone which he named somatostatin. This hormone acts by inhibiting the release of growth hormone from the pituitary gland. In 1977 Guillemin and Schally were awarded the Nobel Prize for their research on hypothalamic hormones. Guillemin wrote on the importance of their discoveries in an autobiography, published in Pioneers in NeuroendocrinologyII, stating that: "I consider the isolation and characterization of TRFas the major event in modern neuroendocrinology, the inflection point that separated confusion and a great deal of doubt from real knowledge. Modern neuroendocrinology was born of that event. Isolations of LRF, somatostatin, and the recent endorphins were all extensions (as there will be still more, I am sure) of that major event--the isolation of TRF, a novel molecule in hypothalamic extracts, with hypophysiotropic activity, the first so characterized....The event was the vindication of 14 years of hard work."

Guillemin soon turned his attention to another class of substances, known asneuropeptides. Produced by the hypothalamus and other parts of the brain, neuropeptides act at the synapses of the nerves (the area where the nerve impulse passes from one neuron or nerve cell to another). One group of neuropeptides, for example, called endorphins, seem to affect moods and the perception ofpain. Guillemin's recent research includes neurochemistry of the brain and growth factors.

Guillemin is known as an urbane conversationalist who is interested in the arts and enjoys painting. He and his wife have a collection of contemporary French and American paintings, pre-Columbian art objects, and artifacts from around the world. Guillemin is also a connoisseur of fine food and wine.

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