Birthday: January 16, 1916
Died At Age: 88
Sun Sign: Capricorn
Born in: Stockholm, Sweden
Famous as: Biochemist
children: Rurik Bergström, Svante Pääbo
Died on: August 15, 2004
City: Stockholm, Sweden
awards: 1982 - Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
1975 - Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize
1972 - Gairdner Foundation International Award
1977 - Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research
Sune Bergström was a Swedish biochemist who was one of the co-recipients of the 1982 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine; he won the award for his discoveries concerning prostaglandins and related substances. Bergström spent most of his working life researching on prostaglandin at Karolinska Institute. He was introduced to the topic by Ulf von Euler, who at that time was working on it. Impressed by Bergström’s work on lipoxygenase, Euler gave him some prostaglandin extracts to purify. However, he could not take up the work immediately because soon after the incident, he first went to Switzerland with a research fellowship and then joined University of Lund, where the infrastructure for research work needed to be rebuilt. Nonetheless, he soon gathered around him a team of young scientists and with them began his work on prostaglandin. Later, on getting a call from Karolinska Institute, he moved to Stockholm with his whole team and continued his research on prostaglandin. Subsequently, they not only identified six different prostaglandins, but also described their chemical structure. Later, he began to work on its clinical applications. The importance of his work was such that in spite of being the Chairman of the Board of Directors at the Nobel Foundation, he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Bengt I. Samuelsson and John R. Vane.
Childhood & Early Life
Karl Sune Detlof Bergström was born on January 10, 1916, in Stockholm, Sweden, to Sverker Bergström and his Wera (Wistrand) Bergström. He had two siblings; Edman and Folke Bergström.
In 1934, Bergström passed out from secondary school and joined Karolinska Institute, also known as the Royal Caroline Institute. There he started working as an assistant to biochemist Erik Jorpes, who at that time was researching on the clinical use of heparin.
Jorpes encouraged young Bergström to study the biochemistry of lipids and steroids. Impressed by his work, Jorpes arranged a one-year fellowship for him and with that he joined the University of London in 1938.
Here, Bergström started working on bile acids with Dr G.A.D. Haslewood at Hammersmith Postgraduate Medical School. Subsequently, he received a British Council fellowship to continue his work at Edinburgh. Unfortunately, his fellowship was cancelled with the onset of the World War II and he had to go back home.
Fortunately, in 1940, he received a two-year Swedish-American Fellowship and with that he went to the United States. In the first year, he worked in the University of Columbia in New York City as research fellow. Then in 1941, he moved to the Squibb Institute for Medical Research in New Jersey.
At Squib, Bergström started working on steroid cholesterol. He especially focused on its reaction when it was chemically combined with oxygen at room temperature. The process, known as auto-oxidation, remained the theme of his research even after he returned to Karolinska Institute.
On returning to the Karolinska Institute in 1942 at the completion of his fellowship period, he started working on auto-oxidation of linoleic acid. Subsequently, he found that an enzyme called lipoxygenase was essential for its oxidization. In 1944, Bergström received his M.D. and D. Med. Sci., Biochemistry from Karolinska Institute.
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In 1944, Bergström was made a Docent of Physiological Chemistry by Karolinska Institute. Subsequently, he began his career as an Assistant at the Biochemical Department at the same institute. Working with Hugo Theorell, he developed a purification process for lipoxygenase in 1945.
In October 1945, while attending a meeting of the Physiological Society at Karolinska, Bergström met Ulf von Euler, who was then working on prostaglandins, a lipid compound found in most animals, including humans. Impressed by his work on purification of lipoxygenase, Euler gave him some prostaglandins extracts for further purification.
Although he started working on it immediately he soon had to put the project on hold for quite a few years. First in 1946, he received another fellowship and left for Switzerland, working as a research fellow at the University of Basel for one year.
Then in 1947, Bergström came back to Sweden as the Professor of Physiological Chemistry at the University of Lund. Here his first task was to rebuild the research facilities, which had fallen into disuse. Once that was done, he started his research on prostaglandins.
By 1957, working with his doctoral student Bengt Samuelson and others, Bergström was able to isolate and purify two prostaglandins, named PGE and PGF. The study was first to describe the chemical structure of this lipid compound.
In 1958, Bergström joined Karolinska Institutet as Professor of Chemistry and with him the whole research team moved to Karolinska. By now, Dr Ragnar Ryhage had built mass spectrometer there. It played a decisive role in the work on prostaglandins.
By 1962, Bergström and his team had isolated six prostaglandins and established their structure. Later they established that these compounds are mainly formed from fatty acids and also identified function of each prostaglandin.
Meanwhile in 1963, Bergström became the Dean of the Medical Faculty at Karolinska and remained in the position till 1966. Then from 1969 to 1977, he was the Rector of the Institute.
Concurrently, he held many other important posts outside the institute. However, in spite of such administrative as well as academic responsibilities he remained equally keen on research work.
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In later years, he began to work on the potential clinical applications of his research. It was soon discovered that prostaglandins protect tissues from the digestive juices of the body, control blood pressure, help to bring down body temperature and play important part in regulating fertility.
Bergström was especially interested in maternal health. He helped World Health Organization to initiate a project on it. He himself devoted a lot of energy in promoting such projects in India, where postpartum haemorrhage was a major cause of death.
Bergström’s work on prostaglandins is undoubtedly his most important contribution. It was because of his work that prostaglandins are now being widely used in many medical conditions such as birth control, abortion, pain relief, and blood clots.
Although prostaglandins were first discovered by Ulf Von Euler, Bergström was first to establish that prostaglandins are groups of chemical compounds found almost in every tissue of animals, including the human beings. He was also first to identify number of these compounds and describe their chemical structures.
Once it was established that prostaglandins had many clinical applications he started working on its biosynthesizing process and collaborated with pharmaceutical companies for mass production of prostaglandins based drugs. He also helped WHO to use the drug for female health.
Awards & Achievements
In 1972, Bergström received the Gairdner Foundation International Award, which has now been renamed the Canada Gairdner International Award. Also in 1972, he received the Anders Jahre Medical Prize, Oslo.
In 1975, he co-received the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize with his student and co-worker Bengt I. Samuelsson. In the same year, he was awarded The Francis Amory Prize by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In 1977, he received the Albert Laser Basic Medical Research Award, New York and in 1980, the Robert A. Welch Award in Chemistry, Houston.
In 1982, Bergström received Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his “discoveries concerning prostaglandins and related biologically active substances". He shared the prize with Bengt I. Samuelsson, who worked with him on the same project and John R. Vane, who worked separately on the relation between prostaglandins and aspirins.
In 1975, he became the Chairman of the Board of Directors at the Nobel Foundation; in 1977, the Chairman of the WHO Global Advisory Committee on Medical Research, Geneva and in 1983 the President of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Personal Life & Legacy
Bergström was officially married to Maj Nelly (nee Gernandt) Bergström. The couple had one son, Rurik Ernest Detlof Bergström, who later became an established businessman. Nelly died in 2007.
Bergström also had an extramarital relationship with Estonian chemist Karin Pääbo. They had a son, Svante Pääbo, born out of wedlock. His visited them on Sundays and his official family did not know anything about this liaison.
Svante Pääbo later grew up to be evolutionary geneticist and worked extensively on Neanderthal genome. However, father and son barely knew each other and Svante was mostly brought up by his mother.
Bergström died 15 August 2004 after a long illness in Stockholm. His two sons came to know about each other only after that.
Initially it was doubtful if Bergström would ever receive the Nobel Prize although his work merited it. Since he was the Chairman of the Board of Directors at the Nobel Foundation nominating him for a prize would amount to conflict of interest. He ultimately received the honor because scientists later agreed that his work was too important to be ignored.