Axel Hugo Teodor Theorell Biography (1903-1982)

Nationality
Swedish
Gender
Male
Occupation
biochemist

Axel Hugo Theorell was born in Linköping, Sweden, on July 6, 1903. He received his bachelor of medicine degree (1924) and his doctor of medicine (1930) from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. He also studied at the PasteurInstitute in Paris. When a crippling attack of poliomyelitis made a career as a physician impractical, he decided instead to pursue research and teaching. His academic work while at Stockholm was an inquiry into the chemistry of plasma lipids (fatty acids) and their effect on red blood cells. A technique he developed at this time to separate the plasma proteins albumin and globulin was later to prove useful in his work on isolating enzymes (globularproteins) and coenzymes, which help to activate specific enzymes.

As professor of chemistry at Uppsala University from 1930-1936, Theorell expanded his research on plasma lipids to concentrate on myoglobin, a muscle protein whose oxygen-carrying capacities he compared to that of hemoglobin in theblood. By isolating (purifying) myoglobin, he was able to show its absorption and storage capacities, and to measure, using centrifugal force, its molecular weight. This determination of its physical properties showed that myoglobin was a separate protein from hemoglobin.

In 1933 Theorell received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation that enabled him to further his study of enzymes with Otto Warburg at the Kaiser WilhelmInstitute (now the Max Planck Institute) in Berlin. Warburg had attempted without success to isolate the yellow enzyme. Using his own methods, Theorell accomplished the isolation. He further separated the yellow enzyme into two parts: the catalytic coenzyme and the pure protein apoenzyme. He also found that the main ingredient of the yellow enzyme is the plasma protein albumin. Animportant corollary to the research was Theorell's discovery of the chemicalchain reaction necessary for cellular oxidation or respiration. These contributions brought a test-tube creation of life closer to reality, and advanced the study of the chemical differences between normal and cancerous cells.

Returning to Stockholm, Theorell became head of the biochemistry department at the Karolinska Institute, part of a Nobel Institute established for the purpose of providing Theorell with further research opportunities. Under his direction, the department acquired a reputation for excellence that attracted biochemists from all over the world. It was here that Theorell continued his research on cytochrome c, succeeding in his attempts to purify it by 1939. He furthered this study that same year in the United States with his colleague, Linus Pauling, who discovered the alpha spiral (protein molecules arranged ina twisted-atom chain).

After World War II, a collaboration with Britton Chance of the University ofPennsylvania elucidated steps in the oxidation (breakdown) of alcohol and gave the process a name--the Theorell-Chance mechanism. Theorell's study of theenzymes that catalyze the oxidation, alcohol dehydrogenases, provided a new method for determining the level of alcohol in the bloodstream--a technique that came to be used by Sweden and West Germany to test the sobriety of their citizens. From a different perspective, Theorell's alcohol enzyme research pinpointed several bacterial strains, knowledge of which was thought to be useful in the treatment of tuberculosis. Theorell was awarded the 1955 Nobel Prizein physiology or medicine for "his discoveries concerning the nature and mode of action of oxidation enzymes." Theorell retired from the Nobel Institutein 1970. Afflicted with a stroke in 1974, his health deteriorated over the following years. He died on August 15, 1982, while vacationing on an island offthe coast of Sweden.

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