A Harvard research group has announced the synthesis of a family of hormones that may ultimately be of as much medical importance as the steroid drugs are today. The steroids--another group of hormones--are the active ingredients in such drugs as birth-control pills.
Directed by Elias J. Corey, professor of Chemistry and chairman of the Chemistry department, the group has synthesized five members of a class of about 15 hormones known as prostaglandins. A detailed report of the research appeared in Wednesday's issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
Earlier researchers have intensively studied the prostaglandins because of indications that even as little as a billionth of an ounce of the hormones could have major effects on many different body processes.
Some have been found to speed up or to slow heart rate, to raise or lower blood pressure, to control deposits of fat inside blood vessels, or to change nervous activity in the brain. And present studies are testing their capability in birth control and the ability to withstand stress.
But all of these studies have been limited by the difficulty of obtaining working amounts of the hormones in pure form. The largest of the present meager sources is in extracts from the tests of Icelandic sheep.
Since all the prostaglandins have a closely similar chemical structure--based on a backbone of a ring of 5 carbon atoms to which 15 others are attached--synthesis of all members of the family should be a relatively easy matter. This will make possible their production in large enough quantities for research into their medical uses.
Specific applications as drugs may be slow in coming. Almost 30 years lapsed after the discovery of the steroids before the first major steroid-based drugs were produced. Corey said he felt it is likely that certain diseases do result from an imbalance of the hormones, and that artificial prostaglandins might be able to control them.
The seven Harvard chemists have been developing the steps in the syntheses for about four years. Besides Corey, the group includes research fellows Neils H. Andersen, Robert M. Carlson, Joachim Paust, Edwin Vedejs, Isidoros Vlattas, and Rudolph E. K. Winter.