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The scientist whose research led to cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, has died.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Every day, tens of millions of people in the U.S. take pills called statins to reduce their cholesterol and lower their risk of heart attack and stroke. Akira Endo, the Japanese scientist who discovered statins, has died at age 90. NPR pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin has this remembrance.

SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: In his youth, Akira Endo dreamed of becoming a scientist. His hero - Alexander Fleming, the man who, in 1928, discovered the antibiotic penicillin produced by a blue-green fungus. Endo would eventually discover statins after studying thousands of other fungi cultures.

MICHAEL BROWN: The bold thing that Endo did was to search for a natural chemical, something made by nature that would have the therapeutic effect that he was looking for.

LUPKIN: That was Dr. Michael Brown, who, with his research partner, won the Nobel prize for discovering how the body metabolizes cholesterol. Cholesterol is a waxy substance that circulates in the blood. It can build up in the arteries and cause heart attacks and strokes. Endo found what he was looking for. Here's Brown again.

BROWN: That chemical could block cholesterol production by inhibiting an enzyme that is necessary for cholesterol to be made.

LUPKIN: Brown and his colleague reached out to Endo immediately after reading his scientific paper to ask if they could test his statin in animal cells. The work led to the statin medicines we know today, like Lipitor and Crestor. But Endo's employer at the time, a company called Sankyo, wouldn't be the first to get a statin approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Still, Endo's discovery was a true breakthrough. Dr. Christopher Cannon, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital, says when statins were approved in late 1980s, it changed everything.

CHRISTOPHER CANNON: We're all told eat better and exercise, and that only has a modest effect. But when statins came along, they can have more than a 50% lowering of cholesterol, and that translates into 35-40% reductions in heart attack, stroke and death.

LUPKIN: And he says statins had an enormous impact.

CANNON: There's probably no intervention in medicine that has had a more positive effect - even aspirin or, you know - I can't think of anything else.

LUPKIN: On second thought, maybe antibiotics, Cannon said. So Endo ended up following in Alexander Fleming's footsteps even more closely than he might have imagined. Sydney Lupkin, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NXWORRIES SONG, "WHERE I GO FEAT. H.E.R." ) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sydney Lupkin is the pharmaceuticals correspondent for NPR.