Oleh Hornykiewicz, a Polish-born pharmacologist whose breakthrough research on Parkinson’s disease has spared millions of patients the tremors and other physical impairments it can cause, died on May 27 in Vienna. He was 93.
His death was confirmed by his longtime colleague, Professor Stephen J. Kish of the University of Toronto, where Professor Hornykiewicz (pronounced whor-nee-KEE-eh-vitch) taught from 1967 until his retirement in 1992.
Professor Hornykiewicz was among several scientists who were considered instrumental in first identifying a deficiency of the neurotransmitter dopamine as a cause of Parkinson’s disease, and then in perfecting its treatment with L-dopa, an amino acid found in fava beans.
The Nobel laureate Dr. Arvid Carlsson and his colleagues had earlier shown that dopamine played a role in motor function. Drawing on that research, Professor Hornykiewicz and his assistant, Herbert Ehringer, discovered in 1960 that the brains of patients who had died of Parkinson’s had very low levels of dopamine.
He persuaded another one of his collaborators, the neurologist Walther Birkmayer, to inject Parkinson’s patients with L-dopa, the precursor of dopamine, which could cross the barrier between blood vessels and the brain and be converted into dopamine by enzymes in the body, thus replenishing those depleted levels. The treatment alleviated symptoms of the disease, and patients who had been bedridden started walking.
The initial results of this research were published in 1961 and presented at a meeting of the Medical Society of Vienna. The “L-dopa Miracle,” as it was called, inspired Dr. Oliver Sacks’s memoir “Awakenings” (1973) and the fictionalized movie of the same name in 1990.
Professor Kish, who heads the Human Brain Laboratory at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, said L-dopa, or Levodopa, as it is also called, is today “the mainstay treatment for Parkinson’s disease — no drug is more efficacious.”
“Hornykiewicz,” he added, “reminds us that before L-dopa, persons with Parkinson’s disease were bedridden, crowding chronic hospital wards, and the doctors were powerless to do anything. His discovery changed all that —- it was a miracle.”
As a therapy for Parkinson’s, L-dopa was further refined by other scientists, including George C. Cotzias and Melvin D. Yahr. But it was Professor Hornykiewicz, defying colleagues who had argued that post-mortem brain studies were worthless, who is credited with the critical breakthroughs.
His findings spurred the establishment of human brain tissue banks, research into dopamine and treatments of other diseases caused by low levels of neurotransmitters.
“Today, it is generally agreed that the initiation of the treatment of Parkinson’s disease with L-dopa represented one of the triumphs of pharmacology of our time,” Professor Hornykiewicz wrote in “The History of Neuroscience in Autobiography, Volume IV” (2004). “This provided, apart from the benefit to the patients, a stimulus for analogous studies of many other brain disorders, both neurological and psychiatric.”
He received several distinguished awards, including the Wolf Prize in Medicine in 1979 and the Ludwig Wittgenstein Prize of the Austrian Research Foundation in 1993.
In 2000, when Dr. Carlsson, of Sweden, and others were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering dopamine and “allowing for the development of drugs for the disease,” as the Nobel committee wrote, more than 200 scientists signed a petition protesting that the prize had not also been awarded to Professor Hornykiewicz.
Oleh Hornykiewicz was born on Nov. 17, 1926, in the village of Sychow, near Lviv, in what was then southeastern Poland and is now western Ukraine. His was a fourth-generation family of Eastern Orthodox Catholic priests. His father, Theophil Hornykiewicz, ministered to the village’s several dozen parishioners and taught religion; his mother, Anna (Sas-Jaworsky) Hornykiewicz, managed the affairs of the village’s 300-year-old wooden church.
When the Soviet Union invaded in 1939, the family fled to Austria, his mother’s ancestral home, with whatever belongings they could carry. Oleh knew no German but learned it by reading Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” which was readily available in Vienna. He suffered from tuberculosis and, when the war ended, decided to follow his eldest brother and become a doctor.
He received his medical degree from the University of Vienna in 1951 and began his academic and research career in its pharmacology department. He held a British Council Research Scholarship at the University of Oxford from 1956 to 1958. Beginning in 1967, he headed the psychopharmacology department at the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry in Toronto (now the Center for Addiction and Mental Health), where he established the Human Brain Laboratory in 1978.
He was named a full professor of pharmacology and psychiatry at the University of Toronto in 1973 and, in 1976, appointed to head the newly-founded Institute of Biochemical Pharmacology of the University of Vienna. He held both posts concurrently.
He is survived by his daughter, Maria Hentosz; three sons, Nicholas, Stephen and Joseph; six grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. His wife, Christina (Prus-Jablonowski) Hornykiewicz, had died.
“He was a pharmacologist, biochemist and neurologist who wanted to find out how the brain works and how dopamine was involved,” Professor Kish said. “And he wanted to be known also as a philosopher.”
Despite being snubbed by the Nobel committee, Professor Hornykiewicz was philosophical about what he had accomplished and the degree to which it had been credited.
“I am surprised to see that I have achieved everything I could have wished for,” he wrote in 2004. “The support and recognition I received for my work, I have accepted with gratitude, as a charming reminder to do more and better.”