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Sunday, 30 July 2017

Vittorio Erspamer - chemist

Professor who first identified the neurotransmitter serotonin


Dr Vittorio Erspamer
Dr Vittorio Erspamer
Vittorio Erspamer, the pharmacologist and chemist who first identified the neurotransmitter serotonin, was born on this day in 1909 in in the small village of Val di Non in Malosco, a municipality of Trentino.

Serotonin, also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), is found in the gastrointestinal tract, blood platelets and central nervous system of animals, including humans.

It is popularly thought to be a contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness. A generation of anti-depressant drugs, including Prozac, Seroxat, Zoloft and Celexa, have been developed with the aim of interfering with the action of serotonin in the body in a way that boosts such feelings.

The name serotonin was coined in the United States in 1948 after research doctors at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio discovered a vasoconstrictor substance - one that narrows blood vessels - in blood serum. Since it was a serum agent affecting vascular tone, they named it serotonin.

However, in 1952 it was shown that a substance identified by Dr Erspamer in 1935, which he named enteramine, was the same as serotonin.

Dr Erspamer made his discovery when he was working as assistant professor in anatomy and physiology at the University of Pavia, having graduated there in medicine and surgery in 1935.

His speciality was pharmacognosy - the study of drugs from natural sources. In particular, he was interested in the extraction of pharmacologically active substances from animals, which was the focus of much of his life’s work.

An illustration of how scientists believe the dopamine and  serotonin neurotransmitters affect brain function
An illustration of how scientists believe the dopamine and
serotonin neurotransmitters affect brain function
Dr Erspamer’s early research in the Institute of Comparative Anatomy and Physiology at Pavia focussed on the smooth muscle constricting or contracting properties of various compounds – known as amine - found in the skins and intestinal tracts of a number of species, including rabbits, mollusks, and frogs.

One substance which interested him was found in certain cells of the gut. An acetone isolate of the cells caused smooth muscle contraction, especially in the uterus of the female rat.

He carried out tests to prove that the substance was not another neurotransmitter, epinephrine - also known as adrenaline – and named the new substance enteramine.

During his career, Dr Erspamer held positions at the universities of Rome, Bari and Parma and also studied in Berlin.

The Ghislieri College at the University of Pavia, where Vittorio Erspamer graduated and worked for several years
The Ghislieri College at the University of Pavia, where
Vittorio Erspamer graduated and worked for several years
He was one of the first Italian pharmacologists to realize that strong relationships with the chemical and pharmaceutical industries could yield vital funds for research.

In the late 1950s, he established a long-term collaboration with chemists at the Farmitalia company, thanks to whose funding he collected more than 500 species of marine organisms from all around the world, including amphibians, shellfish, sea anemones and other species.

During more than 60 years he was able to conclude the isolation, identification, synthesis and pharmacological study of more than 60 new chemical compounds, most of which were isolated from animals, predominantly amphibians.

His other major discovery was octopamine, a substance similar in function to epinephrine in that it mobilises the body and the nervous system for action. He found this in the salivary glands of the octopus.

Twice nominated for a Nobel Prize, he was obliged to retire from official academic positions in 1984 on the grounds of age but continued to work at the Sapienza University of Rome, alongside his wife Giuliana Falconieri, a long-time colleague he married in the early 1960s, up until the time of his death in 1999 at the age of 90.

Malosco Castle, restored in the 16th century
Malosco Castle, restored in the 16th century
Travel tip:

Vittorio Erspamer’s birthplace, Malosco, is a small village in the upper Val di Non valley situated on a high plateau about 54km (34 miles) north of Trento in an area of forests and meadows. The discovery of coins in the vicinity points to Roman origins. More recently, it belonged to the family of count Gerolamo Guarienti, who rebuilt Malosco Castle in the 16th century. Today it is a popular centre for cross-country skiing and there is a network of trails for walkers to enjoy.

Travel tip:

Although not established until 1361 – almost 300 years after the University of Bologna, which is recognised as the oldest in Europe – the University of Pavia can claim to have its roots in an educational institution in the Lombardy city of which the first known mention was in 825, in an edict issued by the Frankish king of Italy, Lothar I. That would make it older even than Al Quaraouyine University, in Morocco, which was founded in 859 and is officially the oldest continually operating educational institution in the world.



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