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Who was Dr. Otto Warburg

by Kim Risley on March 29, 2011

Otto Warburg

This article is about Otto Warburg and is from the ASH website.  Hope you enjoy…

Chemist Otto Warburg won a Nobel Prize in 1931 for discovering the nature and mode of action of the respiratory enzyme.  His work demonstrated that cancer cells replicate in the absence of oxygen.  Several oxygenation methods have been proven capable of stopping the proliferation of cancer cells.

Otto Heinrich Warburg was born October 8, 1883, in Freiburg, Baden.

Scientific Work and Nobel Prize

While working at the Marine Biological Station Otto Warburg performed research on oxygen consumption in sea urchin eggs after fertilization, and proved that upon fertilization, the rate of respiration increases by as much as sixfold. His experiments also proved that iron is essential for the development of the larval stage.

In 1918 Otto Warburg was appointed Professor at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biology in Berlin-Dahlem. By 1931 he was named Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Cell Physiology there, which founded the previous year by a donation of the Rockefeller Foundation to the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft (since renamed the Max Planck Society).

Otto Warburg investigated the metabolism of tumors and the respiration of cells, particularly cancer cells, and in 1931 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his “discovery of the nature and mode of action of the respiratory enzyme.

In 1924, Otto Warburg hypothesized that cancer, malignant growth, and tumor growth are caused by the fact that tumor cells mainly generate energy (as e.g. adenosine triphosphate / ATP) by non-oxidative breakdown of glucose (a process called glycolysis). This is in contrast to “healthy” cells which mainly generate energy from oxidative breakdown of pyruvate. Pyruvate is an end-product of glycolysis, and is oxidized within the mitochondria. Hence and according to Warburg, cancer should be interpreted as a mitochondrial dysfunction.

“Cancer, above all other diseases, has countless secondary causes. But, even for cancer, there is only one prime cause. Summarized in a few words, the prime cause of cancer is the replacement of the respiration of oxygen in normal body cells by a fermentation of sugar.” — Dr. Otto H. Warburg in Lecture.

Otto Warburg continued to develop the hypothesis experimentally, and held several prominent lectures outlining the theory and the data.

The concept that cancer cells switch to glycolysis has become widely accepted, even if it is not seen as the cause of cancer. Some suggest that the Warburg phenomenon could be used to develop anticancer drugs.

Meanwhile, cancer cell glycolysis is the basis of positron emission tomography (18-FDG PET), a medical imaging technology that relies on this phenomenon.

Later years Otto Warburg edited and has much of his original work published in The Metabolism of Tumours (tr. 1931) and wrote New Methods of Cell Physiology (1962). An unabashed Anglophile, Otto Warburg was thrilled when Oxford University awarded him an honorary doctorate. Otto Warburg was awarded the Order Pour le Mrite in 1952. Otto Warburg was known to tell other universities not to bother with honorary doctorates, and to ask officials to mail him medals he had been awarded so as to avoid a ceremony that would separate him from his beloved laboratory.

Otto Warburg also wrote about oxygen’s relationship to the pH of cancer cells internal environment. Since fermentation was a major metabolic pathway of cancer cells, Warburg reported that cancer cells maintain a lower pH, as low as 6.0, due to lactic acid production and elevated CO2. Otto Warburg firmly believed that there was a direct relationship between pH and oxygen. Higher pH means higher concentration of oxygen molecules while lower pH means lower concentrations of oxygen.

When frustrated by the lack of acceptance of his ideas, Otto Warburg was known to quote an aphorism he attributed to Max Planck that science doesn’t progress because scientists change their minds, but rather because scientists attached to erroneous views die, and are replaced.

Seemingly utterly convinced of the accuracy of his conclusions, Otto Warburg expressed dismay at the “continual discovery of cancer agents and cancer viruses” which he expected to “hinder necessary preventative measures and thereby become responsible for cancer cases”.

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