Akira Endo, scholar of statins that reduce heart disease, dies at 90

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Akira Endo, a Japanese biochemist whose research on mushrooms helped lay the groundwork for widely prescribed drugs that lower a type of cholesterol contributing to heart disease, died on June 5 at the age of 90.

Chiba Kazuhiro, president of the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, where Dr. Endo was a professor emeritus, confirmed his death in a statement. The statement did not specify the cause or location of his death.

Cholesterol, mainly produced in the liver, plays important roles in the body but also significantly contributes to coronary heart disease, a leading cause of death in the United States, Japan, and many other countries.

In the early 1970s, Dr. Endo cultivated mushrooms in an attempt to find a natural substance that could inhibit a crucial enzyme in cholesterol production. Some scientists were concerned that this could interfere with the positive functions of cholesterol.

However, by 1980, Dr. Endo’s team had discovered that a cholesterol-lowering drug, known as a statin, reduced the level of LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol in the blood. By 1987, after further research by other scientists, Merck was producing the first licensed statin.

These drugs have been shown to be effective in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, and millions of people in the United States and elsewhere now take them for high LDL levels.

Akira Endo was born on November 14, 1933, in Yurihonjo, a city in a mountainous area near the Sea of Japan. His parents were farmers, and he developed an interest in fungi and molds, which would influence his scientific work.

He worked in the rice fields by day and attended high school at night, against his parents’ wishes. He was partly inspired by a desire to help farmers struggling with agricultural pests, according to Kozo Sasada, spokesperson for Endo Akira Kenshokai, a group that honors Dr. Endo’s legacy.

Dr. Endo said his career was also inspired by a biography he read of Alexander Fleming, the Scottish biologist who discovered penicillin in the 1920s.

“For me, Fleming was a hero,” he told Igaku-Shoin, a Japanese medical publisher, in 2014. “I dreamed of becoming a doctor as a child, but I realized a new horizon as people who are not doctors can save lives and contribute to society.”

After studying agriculture at Tohoku University, he joined Sankyo, a Japanese pharmaceutical company, in the late 1950s. His first assignment was the production of enzymes for fruit juices and wines in a Tokyo factory.

He developed a more efficient way to grow mold by applying a method he had used as a child to prepare miso and pickled vegetables, he later told M3, a website for Japanese medical professionals. His reward was a promotion to the company’s microbiology and chemistry laboratory.

In the 1960s, he earned a doctorate in biochemistry from Tohoku University. He also lived for a few years in New York City, where he worked as a research associate at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

At the time, he later told M3, he wanted to invent a cure for stroke, the leading cause of death in Japan. Strokes had claimed the lives of his father and grandparents.

“But when I went to the United States,” he said, “I learned that there were many cases of heart disease, so I changed.”

Back at Sankyo, he grew more than 6,000 mushrooms in the early 1970s as part of an effort to find a natural substance that could block a crucial enzyme involved in the production of cholesterol.

“I didn’t know anything other than mold, so I decided to look for it in mold,” he said.

He eventually found what he was looking for: a strain of penicillium, or blue mold, that reduced levels of an enzyme needed by cells to produce LDL cholesterol in chickens.

Dr. Endo’s survivors include his wife, Orie; a son, Osamu; and a daughter, Chiga, according to Endo Akira Kenshokai. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

After leaving Sankyo in the late 1970s, he worked as a professor at several Japanese universities and served as president of Biopharm Research Laboratories, a Japanese pharmaceutical company. In 2008, he received the Lasker Award, the most prestigious prize in medicine after the Nobel, for his medical research.

Dr. Endo said in the 2014 interview that he aimed to build a career solving a global problem, not one specific to Japan. He compared his work to climbing the much higher peaks of Mount Takao in Tokyo.

“If I had to climb a mountain,” he said, “Mount Everest would be better.”

Orlando Mayorquin and Gina Kolata contributed reporting.

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