Richard Wurtman

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Richard Wurtman
Born March 9, 1936 (1936-03-09) (age 80)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Fields Neuroscience, Treatments for Brain Diseases, Nutrition and the Brain
Institutions MIT, Harvard
Alma mater
Known for
  • Invention of use of melatonin to promote sleep
  • Use of serotoninergic drugs to treat obesity and other disorders characterized by disturbances in both appetite and mood
  • Strategies for finding drugs to treat Alzheimer's Disease; (Wurtman, 2009)
  • Use of their circulating precursors to increase the syntheses of brain neurotransmitters and membranes

Richard Wurtman, M.D., is the Cecil H. Green Distinguished Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Professor of Neuroscience in MIT’s Department of Brain & Cognitive Sciences, and of Neuropharmacology in the Harvard – MIT Division of Health Sciences & Technology.

His research career encompasses three areas:

  • Basic-science studies, principally on neurotransmitters and other brain chemicals
One of the earliest areas of Wurtman's focus was in dietary precurors of neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine.[1]
Along with Nicholas Zervas of Beth Israel Hospital and Harvard Medical School, another early area of Wurtman's research pertained to the neurotransmitter dopamine, and its role in stroke physiology.[2] Wurtman's studies occurred at a time of significant growth in research and understanding of neurotransmitters, with optimistic expectations for practical outcomes.[3]
  • Clinical studies to confirm that mechanisms discovered in the laboratory also operate in humans
  • Translational work, usually in collaboration with foundations or companies, to apply the basic-science discoveries to finding new treatments for diseases

Research performed in Wurtman's laboratory has generated about 1,000 research articles and 200 patents.[4]

Among discoveries from Wurtman's laboratory have been that

  • Melatonin is a hormone, secreted at night-time, needed for the induction & maintenance of normal sleep.[5]
  • Dietary carbohydrates, acting via insulin, increase brain tryptophan levels and consequently serotonin synthesis and release, thereby affecting appetite
  • Serotoninergic synapses are thus a useful target for drugs to treat obesity and other conditions which affect appetite and mood (e.g. premenstrual syndrome; seasonal depression). The patent for using fluoxetine to treat premenstrual dysphoric disorder was licensed to Wurtman's startup, Interneuron, which in turn sold them to Lilly. This became the product marketed as Sarafem.[6] Wurtman's patent on using Dexfenfluramine, an isomer of fenfluramine, to suppress appetite was also licensed to Interneuron, which licensed the patents to Wyeth; this drug was withdrawn from the market in 1997 in relation to the "Phen-fen" controversy.[7][8]
  • Oral administration of neurotransmitter precursors such as choline, tyrosine or glutamine can enhance the synthesis and release of their products acetylcholine, dopamine or GABA (by increasing the substrate-saturation of the biosynthetic enzymes)[9]
  • Various neurotransmitters and "second messengers" can modulate the breakdown of APP (the amyloid-precursor protein) and thus the formation of amyloid beta, a protein important in the development of Alzheimer's disease.
  • The biosynthesis in brain of synaptic membrane and its specializations (dendritic spines; neurites; synapses) can be enhanced by treatments affecting plasma composition.

With wife Judith Wurtman, Wurtman co-edited an eight-volume series of books on “Nutrition and the Brain”, and with John Growdon, M.D. and Suzanne Corkin, Ph.D., a nine volume series on Alzheimer’s disease.

Wurtman co-founded Interneuron Pharmaceuticals in 1988,[10][11] which was renamed to Indevus in 2002.[12] Indevus brought an in-licensed product, Trospium chloride, to market before being acquired by Endo Pharmaceuticals in 2009 for $370.0M in cash and $267.0M in milestones.[11]

He also founded Back Bay Scientific, Inc..[citation needed]

He established the Center for Brain Sciences and Metabolism Charitable Trust, and serves as its Scientific Director.[citation needed]


Among Wurtman's publications are the following (see external links below for the link to a pdf file of a more complete list):


  1. ^ Cohen, Edith L; Wurtman, Richard J (Feb 13, 1976), "Brain Acetylcholine: Control by Dietary Choline" (PDF), Science, 191 (4227): 561–562, doi:10.1126/science.1251187, PMID 1251187, retrieved 3 October 2010 
  2. ^ "Medicine: Hope for Stroke Victims", Time, Apr 29, 1974, retrieved 3 October 2010 
  3. ^ "Behavior: Better Living Through Biochemistry", Time, Apr 2, 1979, retrieved 3 October 2010  See p.3 for mention of Wurtman's studies 
  4. ^ Wurtman Lab
  5. ^ Beardsley, Tim (April 1, 1996), "Melatonin Mania: Separating the facts from the hype", Scientific American, retrieved 4 October 2010 
  6. ^ Matthew Herper for Forbes. Sept 25, 2002 A Biotech Phoenix Could Be Rising
  7. ^ FDA September 15, 1997. FDA Announces Withdrawal Fenfluramine and Dexfenfluramine (Fen-Phen)
  8. ^ Lemonick, Michael D; Nash, J. Madeleine; Park, Alice; Thompson, Dick (Sep 29, 1997). "Redux patent and controversy". In . The Mood Molecule. Time. Retrieved 4 October 2010. 
  9. ^ New approach to fighting Alzheimer’s, MIT News Office
  10. ^ Lemonick, Michael D; Dowell, William; Nash, J. Madeleine; Ramirez, Ainissa; Reid, Brian; Ressner, Jeffrey (Sep 23, 1996). "Wurtman as co-founder of Interneuron Pharmaceuticals". In . The New Miracle Drug?. Time. Retrieved 3 October 2010. 
  11. ^ a b BioCentury listing for Indevus Page accessed May 13, 2016
  12. ^ Indevus Press Release April 2, 2002

External links[edit]