Gerty Cori

Gerty Theresa (née Radnitz) Cori (1896 - 1957)

Gerty Theresa (née Radnitz) Cori, MD (1896 – 1957) was a Czech-born American biochemist.

With her husband, she received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1947 for the ‘discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen’ becoming the third woman to receive a Nobel Prize in science, after Marie Curie and Irène Joliot-Curie, and the first woman to be awarded in the field of Physiology or Medicine. The award recognised their work on how glycogen (a derivative of glucose) is broken down and resynthesised in the body for storage and as a source of energy – known as the Cori cycle.

The Coris are also remembered for the discovery and isolation of the molecule glucose-1 phosphate (later called Cori ester). This discovery also marked the first time that scientists observed the functioning of carbohydrate metabolism at a molecular level.

Although she was one of the world’s leading scientists in her field by the age of 30, she spent most of her life working as an assistant. It was only in 1947 that she was finally hired as a full professor; however, this position wasn’t offered to her in recognition of her talents but rather as the consequence of the necessities of the war period, when the demand for women scientists grew due to the sudden shortage of men. Additionally, where as the Cori cycle was a result of their balanced collaboration, the honours given to them were not equal. Gerty Cori was excluded from some of the many awards given only to Carl, like the Albert Lasker Awards for the American Public Health Association and the American Chemical Society’s prestigious Willard Gibbs Medal.


Biography
  • Born Gerty Radnitz 15 August 1896, Prague, Austria-Hungary (now Czechoslovakia)
  • 1914 – Medical studies at the Carl Ferdinand University, Prague, Czechoslovakia
  • 1920 – MD, Ferdinand University. Married classmate Carl Ferdinand Cori (1896-1984) The same year they published their first joint research paper, and continued to publish together for thirty-five years.
  • 1920-1922 Clinical training in pediatrics, Karolinen Kinderspital der Stadt Wien, Vienna, Austria. She was an assistant and spent 2 years researching temperature regulation in congenital myxoedema before and after thyroid therapy. She published several research papers on cretinism, today known as congenital thyroid deficiency.
  • 1922 – Emigrated to the United States and commenced research studies as an assistant biochemist at the New York State Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases in Buffalo, New York. Research centred on the absorption of sugars from the intestines; the effects of insulin on the fate of absorbed carbohydrates; and glycerine formation and degradation. During their time at the Institute, they jointly published 50 papers and Gerty published 11 on her own.
  • 1926 – Became a US citizen
  • 1929 – Described the Cori cycle
  • 1931 – Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri. Carl Cori became chairman of the Department of Pharmacology whilst Gerty became a research associate in the department, with a token salary.
  • 1936 – Isolated glucose-1-phosphate, the ‘Cori ester’. They traced its presence to the activity of the phosphorylase, which catalyzes the breakdown and synthesis of polysaccharides: this discovery made possible the enzymatic synthesis of glycogen and starch in vitro. Subsequently, phosphorylase and other enzymes were crystallized. Also that year they had their son, Carl Thomas.
  • 1938 – Further research on the mechanism by which glycogen is broken down into glucose. Identified the enzyme that initiates the decomposition; and also to use the process to create glycogen in a test tube.
  • 1946 – Carl Cori became Chair of biochemistry at the Washington University School of Medicine. They also received the Midwest Award of the American Chemical Society that year
  • 1947 – Professor of biochemistry at the Washington University School of Medicine. Gerty received the Squibb Award in endocrinology
  • 1947 – Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine with her husband Carl F. Cori for their discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen; and Bernardo Alberto Houssay (1887-1971) “for his discovery of the part played by the hormone of the anterior pituitary lobe in the metabolism of sugar.”
  • 1948 – Gerty received the St. Louis Award and Garvan – Olin medal of the American Chemical Society for women in chemistry and Cori was recognized as a Woman of Achievement in science by the Women’s National Press Club
  • 1950 – President Truman appointed her to the Board of Directors of the National Science Foundation and Gerty received the Sugar Research Prize of the National Academy of Sciences.
  • Awards: Garvan – Olin Medal (1948), the St. Louis Award (1948), the Sugar Research Prize (1950), the Borden Award (1951)
  • Honorary Doctor of Science degrees from Boston University (1948), Smith College (1949), Yale (1951), Columbia (1954), and Rochester (1955).
  • In 1947 Gerty Cori began displaying the symptoms of myelofibrosis, a rare blood disease that affects the bone marrow. She fought the disease for ten years, refusing to give up her research until the last few months of her life. She passed away on 26 October 1957, St. Louis, Missouri of kidney failure.
  • 1998 – Inductee in the National Women’s Hall Of Fame
  • The American Chemical Society designated the research of Gerty and Carl Cori on the metabolism of carbohydrates at The Washington University School of Medicine a National Historic Chemical Landmark on September 21, 2004.

Medical Eponyms
Cori cycle (1929)

Cori cycle, or lactic acid cycle is a metabolic pathway. Lactate produced by anaerobic glycolysis in muscles, is transported to the liver and converted into glucose which then returns to the muscles and is cyclically metabolized back to lactate. The cycle is important in producing ATP during muscle activity and prevent lactic acidosis in the muscle under anaerobic conditions.

Cori Cycle LITFL
Schematic diagram of Cori Cycle

The Cori cycle is a more important source of substrate for gluconeogenesis than food. The contribution of Cori cycle lactate to overall glucose production increases with fasting duration before plateauing.

Note: metformin inhibits the hepatic gluconeogenesis of the Cori cycle and can cause lactic acidosis in patients with renal failure.


Cori disease (Glycogen storage disease type III)

Glycogen storage disease III is an autosomal recessive metabolic disorder caused by deficiency of the glycogen debrancher enzyme and associated with an accumulation of abnormal glycogen with short outer chains. Most patients are enzyme-deficient in both liver and muscle (IIIa), but about 15% are enzyme-deficient in liver only (IIIb) [aka Forbes disease; Limit dextrinosis; Amylo-1,6-glucosidase deficiency; Glycogen debrancher deficiency; OMIM #232400]


Major Publications
  • Cori CF, Cori GT. Polysaccharide Phosphorylase. Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1947
  • Cori GT. Biochemical aspects of glycogen deposition disease. Bibliotheca paediatrica, 1958; 66: 344-358. [Cori disease, Forbes disease]

References

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