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Eugene Roberts


1920 - 2016 Obituary Condolences
Eugene Roberts Obituary
January 19, 1920 - November 8, 2016 Born Evgeny Rabinowitch in Krasnodar, Russia he was brought by his parents to Detroit, Michigan in 1922. In 1936, he received a scholarship to Wayne State University where he received a B.S. degree in chemistry, magna cum laude. A scholarship from the McGregor Foundation and a University Fellowship enabled him to earn M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in 1941 and 1943, respectively, at the University of Michigan. Upon completing his thesis, he was selected to be Assistant Head of the Manhattan Project's inhalation section at the University of Rochester, New York to work on the toxicology of uranium dusts. The work of this group established safe limits for human exposure that are standards still in use today. In 1946, Roberts joined the Division of Cancer Research at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri where he developed a comprehensive program of study of nitrogen metabolism to characterize differences between normal and neoplastic tissues, receiving one of the first grants from the newly organized National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health. The structure and function of DNA were unknown at this time and its genetic role unsuspected. A number of leads and questions raised by his early work still are under investigation in many laboratories today. Particularly, unique epigenetic and genetic roles of amino acid, glutamine, are receiving much attention. In 1949, Roberts discovered the presence of unusually large quantities of y-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. Within a brief period, the activity in this field increased greatly so that the research being carried out ranged from the study of the effects of GABA on ionic movements in single neurons to clinical evaluation of the role of the GABA system, for example, in epilepsy, schizophrenia, Huntington's disease, Alzheimer's disease, autism, and mental retardation. This warranted the convocation of the first truly interdisciplinary neuroscience conference in 1959 at which were present most of the individuals, world-wide, who had a role in opening up this exciting field. Roberts and colleagues pioneered the immunohistochemical localization of neurotransmitter-specific neural systems at the light and electron microscopic levels using antisera to the synthetic enzyme glutamic acid decarboxylase. His work was instrumental in establishing GABA as the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the vertebrate central nervous system. Viewing himself as an explorer in a lab coat, he has explored far and wide for interesting phenomena amenable to analysis with tools available to him. This led to the discovery of the first compound in animals of a substance with a C-P bond (aminoethyl phosphonic acid), and the phosphodiester of L-serine and ethanolamine, both substances being found sub-sequentially in primordial living creature as well as a number of the interesting substances of interest. In 1954, Roberts joined the staff of the City of Hope Medical Center, Duarte, California as Chairman of Biochemistry and Associate Director of Research at a time of its transition from a tuberculosis sanatorium to a modern basic research and medical research institute. He recruited staff, organized electronic and machine shops, a stock room, and a medical and scientific library. Roberts set the pattern for the research effort, which consisted of hiring talented and committed young scientists and leaving them alone to seek their own unique destinies while furnishing them moral and material support. After having convinced administrators and the board of directors of the validity of this approach, for management of basic science research activities, six City of Hope staff members went on to become members of the National Academy of Sciences including Roberts himself. In 1968, he organized an interdisciplinary Division of Neurosciences, the first of its kind. His last endeavor was to focus on identifying major inhibitor command-control mechanisms at levels of membrane, metabolism, genome, brain and society. His work included studies of the effects of steroids and amyloid on nervous system function. His research in the nervous system and earlier interest in cancer came together in a collaborative effort in 2015 with the publication of a paper, "Human breast cancer metastases to the brain display GABAergic properties in the neural niche" Neman, J. et al. His research on memory, attenuation of progression of degeneration after spinal cord injury, aging and Alzheimer's disease, has aroused considerable interest. Roberts is survived by his beloved wife and partner of over 40 years, Ruth Roberts, children from a previous marriage: son, Paul; daughters, Judith and Miriam (James Liljenwall); and five grandchildren.
Published in the Los Angeles Times on Nov. 24, 2016
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