Scientist extraordinaire Linus Pauling

Today we celebrate the birthday of one of the 20th century’s truly great scientists, Linus Pauling (28 Feb 1901 – 19 Aug 1994). Beyond being a world leading chemist and biochemist, he was also a famous and outspoken peace activist.

Pauling holds the distinction of being the only person to be awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes – the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (awarded for research into the nature of the chemical bond and its use in elucidating molecular structure) and the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize (for his efforts to ban the testing of nuclear weapons).

As a scientist, Pauling was one of the founders of the fields of quantum chemistry and molecular biology. He did groundbreaking research on the analysis of molecular structures using the experimental technique of x-ray diffraction, complimented by quantum mechanical theory.

Linus Pauling is generally considered the father of molecular biology.(© All Rights Reserved)
Linus Pauling is generally considered the father of molecular biology.
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During the later part of his career, Pauling’s interest moved to molecular medicine and medical research. It is during this period that he started promoting the controversial idea of high dosage vitamin C as a treatment for various illnesses, notably cancer. Research conducted by Pauling and the British cancer surgeon Ewan Cameron was reported to show a significantly increased survival rate among terminal cancer patients who were treated with high doses of Vitamin C. These results were, however, later questioned by researchers at the Mayo Institute, who claimed the test group and control group in Pauling’s trial were too dissimilar, with the test group alleged to be less ill than the control group. The Mayo Institute repeated the experiment and found that the Vitamin C had no greater effect than the placebo given to the control group. Pauling, in turn, criticised the Mayo experiment for using oral rather than intravenous Vitamin C, and for not continuing the treatment long enough.

The Mayo results were widely publicised and reduced public interest in the value of high dosage Vitamin C. Pauling, however, continued to study the subject, and kept promoting the treatment as an adjunctive cancer therapy. He also investigated the potential for vitamin C to treat the common cold, to prevent atherosclerosis and to relieve angina pectoris.

Acknowledging his contribution to science, Pauling was included in a list of the 20 greatest scientists of all time by the magazine New Scientist, with Albert Einstein being the only other scientist from the 20th century on the list.

Liver, anaemia and the work of William Murphy

Today we celebrate the birthday of William P Murphy (6 Feb 1892 – 9 Oct 1987), the American physician who received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1934, together with George Minot and George Whipple, for work done towards the treatment of pernicious anaemia by means of a diet of uncooked liver.

Chicken liver (© All Rights Reserved)
Chicken liver – richer in iron but lower in Vitamin B12 than beef or lamb. I’d rather have it fried, thanks!
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Murphy’s initial research involved bleeding dogs to create anaemic conditions in the animals (not a nice thought!), and then treating them with various diets, one of which was a diet of uncooked liver. The discovery that liver helped to relieve anaemia prompted further research into liver by Murphy, Minot and Whipple, and it was found that it contained iron, and that the iron was largely responsible for curing anaemia from bleeding.

Experiments with intramuscular injections of liver extract to treat pernicious anaemia led to further discoveries – it was discovered that in this case the active ingredient was not the iron, but a water-soluble substance later identified as Vitamin B12.

This new knowledge, and the discovery that raw liver and its extracts could be used to treat anaemia, were major advances in medicine at the time.

Charles Glen King and the story of Vitamin C

Today is the birthday of Charles Glen King (22 Oct 1896 – 23 Jan 1988), an American biochemist and the ‘other guy’ who also discovered Vitamin C.

In the early 1930s, King was doing research on the anti-scurvy effects of lemon juice on guinea pigs (guinea pigs are one of only a small group of animals besides humans who cannot produce their own vitamin C, hence they can get scurvy like us). At the same time, Hungarian physiologist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi was studying the chemical hexuronic acid that he had previously isolated from animal adrenal glands. Within 2 weeks of each other, both King and Szent-Gyorgyi published papers on the discovery of Vitamin C, showing that the vitamin and hexuronic acid were the same compound.

Szent-Gyorgyi went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1937, for his part in the discovery of Vitamin C, while King was not similarly rewarded. Controversy remains over the extent to which both men deserve partial credit for the discovery.

Given the extent to which Vitamin C is lost from food due to storage, cooking etc, a dietary supplement may be necessary to ensure that you get enough of the good stuff.
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Vitamin C is also known as ascorbic acid, thanks to its anti-scurvy properties (a- = not; scorbus = scurvy). Besides fighting off scurvy, Vitamin C has many other benefits – it is a cofactor in numerous enzymatic reactions in the body, and it has important antioxidant properties. It also enhances iron absorption, and is a natural antihistamine. However, while it is found in high concentrations in immune cells, its flu-fighting power may be a myth. Despite extensive research, Vitamin C has not been proven effective in the prevention or treatment of colds and flu. It does not reduce the incidence or severity of the common cold, but there are some indications that it may help reduce the duration of illness.

Still, even though it may not ward away the sniffles, getting a decent daily dose will definitely do you more good than harm – there doesn’t appear to be many adverse effects from overdosing, since excessive amounts of Vitamin C is simply lost through nonabsorption or urination.

So, don’t hold back on the chilli peppers, guavas, leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, fresh herbs, kiwifruit, strawberries and, yes, good old oranges.

And while you’re feasting away, spare a thought for Charles Glen King, the unsung hero in the Vitamin C story.

Fifty Shades of Red

Do you know why your blood is red? It’s thanks to the red blood pigment, haemin, which is one of the components of haemoglobin.

And why do I know this? Well, because I’ve been reading up on Hans Fischer, the German biochemist who was born on this day in 1881, and who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1930, primarily for his work on the structure and synthesis of the blood pigment haemin. In 1929, Fischer succeeded in synthesising haemin, the deep red, oxygen-carrying, non-protein, ferrous component of haemoglobin, that gives blood its red colour.

It’s elementary, my dear Watson – this is definitely not alien blood.
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Oxygen-rich blood (such as arterial blood and capillary blood) is bright red, as the oxygen intensifies the colour in the haemin. When oxygen is extracted from the blood it turns a darker shade of red – this can be seen in the veins, and in the blood collected during blood donation. The colour of blood can also be an indicator for certain medical conditions. Both carbon monoxide poisoning and cyanide poisoning result in bright red blood, as it inhibits the body’s ability to extract and utilise the oxygen in the blood. On the other hand, severe deoxygenation (which can be caused by respiratory diseases, cardiac disorders, hypothermia, drug overdose or exposure to high altitude) results in a condition called cyanosis, where the blood darkens to such an extent that it gets an almost purple-blueish hue, resulting in the skin turning a blue colour.

While the blood of humans and all vertebrates is always a shade of red (containing haemin), it’s interesting to note that it is, in a strange way, surprisingly close to being green! In addition to his work on blood pigmentation, Thomas Fischer also studied the components of the pigments in leaves. He found that, like the haemin in blood, the chlorophyll in leaves is a porphyrin, and that haemin and chlorophyll share a very similar structure, with only subtle differences.

All of this talk of blood, and red and green pigmentation, conjure scenes of science fiction in my mind – if haemin (that makes blood red), is so similar to chlorophyll (that makes leaves green), perhaps the idea of green-blooded aliens is not such a stretch. It makes scientific sense, right?

Anyway, let me rather stop before I get too carried away. Enjoy the day, and keep an eye out for those little green men! 🙂