Akira Endo, ‘remarkable’ scientist who discovered statins, dies at 90

The scientist whose work led to the creation of statins, a chemical that prevents heart attacks and strokes, has died aged 90.

Akira Endo discovered the first cholesterol-lowering drug in 1973 in a laboratory in Tokyo. The Japanese biochemist is said to have been inspired by Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928, which led him to study fungi to develop medicines.

Statins work by reducing the concentration of ‘bad’ cholesterol in the blood and have helped extend the lives of millions of people.

Prof Bryan Williams, the chief scientific and medical officer at the British Heart Foundation, described Endo as “a remarkable scientist”.

He told BBC news: “This was truly the precursor to the development of statin drugs,” adding, “They absolutely transformed the prevention of heart disease and stroke.

“There have been very few treatments in medicine in recent years that have had such a dramatic impact.”

Doctors now routinely prescribe statins to people who have had a heart attack and to people who are at high risk for heart disease or stroke.

Williams said: “Amazingly, the man who started figuring out how to deal with the cholesterol problem – and who provided a treatment that benefited and saved the lives of many, many millions of people – never received the (Nobel) Prize. I think that’s a shame.”

Endo was born in rural Japan in 1933 and went on to study biochemistry at Tohoku University.

He made his discovery while working for the Japanese pharmaceutical company Sankyo in 1973. At the time, the only way to lower “bad” cholesterol was to combine an unpalatable diet with medications that caused unpleasant side effects.

It took many years of studying thousands of fungi and brewing fungal soups before one was found that lowered cholesterol.

After testing 6,000 different concoctions, Endo and his lab assistants tested a substance made by Penicillium citrinum, a blue-green fungus isolated from a Kyoto trader’s rice, similar to the fungus that grows on old oranges and lemons.

In 1987, the first statin, lovastatin, was approved for clinical use in the US.

Endo received Japan’s 22nd Prize in 2006 and the Lasker Prize, known as the American Nobel Prize, in 2008.