Web edition: December 30, 2011
Print edition: January 14, 2012; Vol.181 #1 (p. 4)
October 17, 1953 | Vol. 64 | No. 16
Make pituitary hormone
Synthesis for the first time of a hormone from the pituitary, often called the body’s master gland and famous source of the anti-arthritis ACTH, is announced by Dr. Vincent du Vigneaud and associates of Cornell University Medical College at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center in New York.
Word received in Washington, D.C., was heard with amazement by scientists of the Smithsonian Institution, as if someone had announced the discovery of a living dinosaur. But the strange find is attested by the word of colleagues “down under” known to be competent and hard to fool. It seems impossible; yet apparently it’s real.
The first hormone is oxytocin, important in childbirth and lactation. The second is vasopressin, the blood pressure raising and antidiuretic hormone of the pituitary.
Oxytocin gets its name from the Greek word for “rapid birth.” Its effect in causing contractions of the uterus make it important in childbirth, while it also influences release of milk in the mammary glands.
The achievement of the synthesis of oxytocin establishes the structure of this hormone and opens the door to many new investigations in biochemistry, pharmacology and physiology, which should lead to a better understanding of the function of this important principle, Dr. du Vigneaud pointed out. Such a synthesis may also provide an unlimited source of the oxytocic hormone for possible expansio of its use in clinical medicine, particularly in obstetrics, and in veterinary medicine, he said.
UPDATE | January 14, 2012
Oxytocin goes from birthing drug to ‘love hormone’
Oxytocin is known to facilitate childbirth and breast-feeding, and has more recently been investigated for its role in maternal behavior.
Oxytocin’s synthesis in 1953 was recognized immediately as a monumental scientific advance. Science News Letter included the discovery among the 10 top stories of the year, alongside Watson and Crick’s proposal for the double-helix structure of DNA, the successful climbing of Mt. Everest and the development of a vaccine against all three types of polio. Just two years later, Vincent du Vigneaud won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for this first synthesis of what’s called a “polypeptide hormone.”
In announcing the award, the Nobel committee acknowledged du Vigneaud’s mastery of the chemistry needed to produce combinations of linked amino acid structures that play a fundamental part in life processes. The medical implications were huge: Drugs based on synthetic oxytocin would speed delivery time for women in labor, and the synthesis of other similar molecules promised a new era in hormone treatment.
What wasn’t obvious in the 1950s was the role that oxytocin might play in behavior. In recent decades, researchers discovered that female virgin rats injected with the hormone mothered rat pups — building nests, licking the pups and attempting to nurse. Additional work has shown that oxytocin is important in pair bonding among prairie voles, as well as in forming social bonds and in developing trust among people.
Today oxytocin is more widely known as the “love hormone” than as a labor drug. And a recent review article suggests the substance may lead to yet more treatments, including for social phobias, autism, infertility and addiction. In untangling oxytocin’s myriad effects, researchers are revealing that straightforward scientific achievements can give way to more nuanced investigations. —Elizabeth Quill