Sune Bergström was a Swedish biochemist who shared the 1982 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on prostaglandins and related compounds. Bergström spent the majority of his career at Karolinska Institute conducting research on prostaglandin. He was introduced to the subject by Ulf von Euler, who was working on it at the time. Euler was impressed by Bergström’s work on lipoxygenase and assigned him the task of purifying prostaglandin extracts. He was unable to begin work immediately after the incident because he first traveled to Switzerland on a research fellowship and then joined the University of Lund, where the research infrastructure needed to be rebuilt. Nonetheless, he quickly gathered a team of young scientists around him and began his work on prostaglandin with their assistance. He later relocated to Stockholm with his entire team after receiving a call from Karolinska Institute to continue his research on prostaglandin. They then described the chemical structure of six different prostaglandins. He later began researching its clinical applications. His work was so significant that, despite his position as Chairman of the Nobel Foundation’s Board of Directors, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Bengt I. Samuelsson and John R. Vane.
Childhood & Adolescence
Karl Sune Detlof Bergström was born in Stockholm, Sweden, on January 10, 1916, to Sverker and Wera (Wistrand) Bergström. Edman and Folke Bergström were his siblings.
Bergström graduated from secondary school in 1934 and enrolled at Karolinska Institute, formerly known as the Royal Caroline Institute. He began his career there as an assistant to biochemist Erik Jorpes, who was conducting research on the clinical use of heparin at the time.
Jorpes encouraged the young Bergström to pursue a career in lipid and steroid biochemistry. Jorpes, impressed by his work, arranged for him to receive a one-year fellowship and he enrolled at the University of London in 1938.
Bergström began his research on bile acids at Hammersmith Postgraduate Medical School with Dr G.A.D.
Haslewood. He was later awarded a British Council fellowship to continue his research in Edinburgh. Unfortunately, his fellowship was terminated when World War II began, and he was forced to return home.
Fortunately, he was awarded a two-year Swedish-American Fellowship in 1940, which enabled him to come to the United States. He spent his first year as a research fellow at Columbia University in New York City. He then relocated to New Jersey’s Squibb Institute for Medical Research in 1941.
Bergström began his career at Squib working on steroid cholesterol. He was particularly interested in its reaction with oxygen when combined chemically at room temperature. Even after he returned to Karolinska Institute, the process known as auto-oxidation remained a focus of his research.
In 1942, upon his return to the Karolinska Institute following the completion of his fellowship, he began research on the auto-oxidation of linoleic acid. He later discovered that an enzyme called lipoxygenase was required for its oxidation. Bergström earned his M.D. and D. Med. Sci., Biochemistry degrees from Karolinska Institute in 1944.
Career of Sune
Bergström was appointed Docent of Physiological Chemistry at Karolinska Institute in 1944. He then began his career as an Assistant at the same institute’s Biochemical Department. In 1945, he developed a method for purifying lipoxygenase in collaboration with Hugo Theorell.
In October 1945, while attending a Physiological Society meeting at Karolinska, Bergström met Ulf von Euler, who was then researching prostaglandins, a lipid compound found in the majority of animals, including humans. Euler was impressed by his work on lipoxygenase purification and gave him some prostaglandin extracts for further purification.
Although he immediately began work on it, he was soon forced to put the project on hold for several years. In 1946, he received another fellowship and moved to Switzerland, where he worked for a year as a research fellow at the University of Basel.
Bergström then returned to Sweden in 1947 as a Professor of Physiological Chemistry at the University of Lund. His first task in this location was to rehabilitate the research facilities that had fallen into disuse. After that, he began his research on prostaglandins.
By 1957, Bergström had isolated and purified two prostaglandins, designated PGE and PGF, in collaboration with his doctoral student Bengt Samuelson and others. The purpose of this study was to describe the chemical structure of this lipid compound for the first time.
Bergström joined Karolinska Institutet as Professor of Chemistry in 1958, bringing his entire research team with him. Dr Ragnar Ryhage had already constructed a mass spectrometer there. It was instrumental in the study of prostaglandins.
By 1962, Bergström and his colleagues had isolated and characterized six prostaglandins. They later discovered that these compounds are primarily composed of fatty acids and deduced the function of each prostaglandin.
Meanwhile, in 1963, Bergström was appointed Dean of Karolinska’s Medical Faculty, a position he held until 1966. Then, from 1969 to 1977, he served as the Institute’s Rector.
Simultaneously, he held a number of other significant positions outside the institute. Despite these administrative and academic responsibilities, he maintained an equal interest in research.
Later in his career, he began to focus on the clinical implications of his research. It was quickly discovered that prostaglandins protect tissues from the digestive juices of the body, regulate blood pressure, aid in cooling the body, and play a critical role in fertility regulation.
Bergström was particularly concerned about maternal health. He assisted the World Health Organization in initiating a project on the subject. He invested considerable effort in promoting such initiatives in India, where postpartum hemorrhage was a leading cause of death.
Significant Works of Sune
Bergström’s work on prostaglandins is without a doubt his crowning achievement. Prostaglandins are now widely used in a variety of medical conditions, including birth control, abortion, pain relief, and blood clots, as a result of his work.
Although Ulf Von Euler discovered prostaglandins first, Bergström established that prostaglandins are a class of chemical compounds found in almost every tissue of animals, including humans. He was also the first to identify and describe the chemical structures of a number of these compounds.
Once it was established that prostaglandins had a wide range of clinical applications, he began researching their biosynthesis and collaborating with pharmaceutical companies to scale up production of prostaglandin-based drugs. He also assisted the WHO in utilizing the drug for female health.
Awards and Accomplishments
Bergström was the 1972 recipient of the Gairdner Foundation International Award, which was renamed the Canada Gairdner International Award. He also received the Anders Jahre Medical Prize in Oslo in 1972.
He shared the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize with his student and colleague Bengt I. Samuelsson in 1975. In the same year, he was awarded the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Francis Amory Prize.
He was awarded the Albert Laser Basic Medical Research Award in 1977 in New York and the Robert A. Welch Award in Chemistry in 1980 in Houston.
Bergström was awarded the 1982 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his “discoveries about prostaglandins and related biologically active substances.” He shared the prize with Bengt I.
Samuelsson, with whom he collaborated on the same project, and with John R. Vane, who studied the relationship between prostaglandins and aspirins independently.
In 1975, he was elected Chairman of the Nobel Foundation’s Board of Directors; in 1977, he was elected Chairman of the World Health Organization’s Global Advisory Committee on Medical Research in Geneva; and in 1983, he was elected President of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Personal History and Legacies
Bergström married Maj Nelly (nee Gernandt) Bergström in a civil ceremony. The couple had a son, Rurik Ernest Detlof Bergström, who went on to establish himself as a successful businessman. Nelly passed away in 2007.
Bergström also had an extramarital relationship with Karin Pääbo, an Estonian chemist. They had an unmarried son, Svante Pääbo. His visits were on Sundays, and his official family was unaware of this liaison.
Svante Pääbo later became an evolutionary geneticist, conducting extensive research on the Neanderthal genome. However, father and son had little contact, and Svante was primarily raised by his mother.
Bergström died in Stockholm on 15 August 2004 following a lengthy illness. His two sons became acquainted only after that.
Estimated Net Worth
The net worth of Sune is unavailable.
Initially, it seemed unlikely that Bergström would ever receive the Nobel Prize, despite the fact that his work deserved it.
Nominating him for a prize would constitute a conflict of interest, as he was Chairman of the Nobel Foundation’s Board of Directors. He eventually received the award after scientists agreed that his work was too significant to ignore.