Richard (Bud) Veech, the Unknown Scientist Behind the Ketogenic Diet Craze Dies at 84
By Travis Christofferson
Richard (Bud) Veech, a biochemist whose research changed our understanding of human metabolism, died, or as he might say, his “great controlling nucleotide coenzymes” reached their final equilibrium on Sunday February 2, 2020, in his home in Rockville, Maryland. He was 84.
His death was confirmed by his close friends and colleagues.
Dr. Veech spent over 50 years studying the nuances of human metabolism. His work was highly lauded among his colleagues.
“He has redefined our understanding of metabolism,” said Dr. Thomas Seyfried of Boston College.
“There are probably only a few people in the world that are capable of fully appreciating his work,” said another colleague.
Develops a “magical” elixir
Most of his career was spent quietly uncloaking the bioenergetics of a handful of the energy coupling molecules, called nucleotide coenzymes, small molecules that act as batteries powering the thousands of reactions that comprise human metabolism.
He then discovered something profound: a small molecule called beta-hydroxybutyrate, known as a ketone body, had some remarkable properties. Beta-hydroxybutyrate is generated naturally by the liver when a person fasts or adopts a diet called the ketogenic diet. Specifically, Dr. Veech discovered beta-hydroxybutyrate had the unique ability to increase the potential energy of the critically important energy-storing, nucleotide coenzyme called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), thus, in effect, “supercharging” our entire metabolism.
This feature of beta-hydroxybutyrate, Dr. Veech contended, was essential to human evolution; facilitating our survival through the inevitable food shortages that have occurred throughout history. Our bodies ability to switch to ketone metabolism when food was unavailable allowed an average size person the ability survive 2 months, compared to 2 to 3 weeks under normal (carbohydrate) metabolism.
The state of ketosis, Dr. Veech believed, was vitally important to human health, yet has been marginalized in the western world simply because of our constant access to food, especially cheap carbohydrates. “…ketosis is a normal physiologic state. I would argue it is the normal state of man. It’s not normal to have McDonald’s and a delicatessen around every corner. It’s normal to starve,” he said in a 2002 New York Times article written by Gary Taubes.
It was Dr. Veech’s contention that many of the health problems Westerners face today are because they rarely enter the therapeutic state of ketosis. Dr. Veech often referred to ketone bodies as “superfuel” or “magic;” not in the literal sense, of course, but in the sense that they have a strange ability to correct a spectrum of health problems that manifest from a reduced capacity to generate energy efficiently―a state known as insulin resistance―a state many experience gradually as they age. Early on he recognized the potential in developing a “food-like” product that could mimic ketosis and restore the energy status of the nucleotide coenzymes that drive our metabolism.
He went on to collaborate with Kieran Clarke at the University of Oxford on the development of a molecule called a ketone ester that when ingested gets converted into the same ketone bodies that the body naturally manufactures during ketosis without the onus of fasting or eating a ketogenic diet.
Dr. Veech held the unwaveringly belief that the ketone ester has the potential to cheaply and safely treat the most pressing chronic diseases of the western world: Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, in addition to a list of other seemingly unrelated conditions like traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s, and radiation poisoning. In a 2003 publication he asked the question “What are the potential uses of beta-hydroxybutyrate?” His answer: “Theoretically any condition wherein oxygen supply to the cells may be limited is an avenue for investigation. This list would encompass almost every disease state.”
Recent research has uncovered additional qualities of beta-hydroxybutyrate, specifically, its ability to act as a signaling molecule, altering gene expression in a way that promotes longevity―a quality that Dr. Veech, remarkably, predicted over 15 years ago. “Finally a chemical agent, beta-hydroxybutyrate, that has played such a major role in man’s survival may be expected to have actions other than simple calories. When nature has a beneficial substance, it may become pleiotropic through evolution with other survival advantages.” Dr. Veech described the strangely far-reaching potential of the ketone ester as the “most important discovery since penicillin.” Clarke said in a 2019 article in The Atlantic, that she believes that the ketone ester will eventually be “more or less a general tonic for the general population.”
Born on September 19th 1935, Veech grew up in Decatur Illinois. After graduating from High School in 1953 he went on to Harvard and was delighted by the inclusive nature of his education. “[It] was a very interesting department. It was founded by a chemist, Charles Eliot, who decided that everyone that was educated needed to have knowledge of the Bible, Shakespeare, Greek history, Greek tragedy, Russian novels, and a foreign language. You had three-hour oral exams. It was very good, very good, very good undergraduate education,” he said in a 2017 interview with Dave Asprey.
His interest shifted to medicine and he went on to medical school at Harvard University, graduating at the top of his class in 1962. During his residency he had an epiphany that would change his trajectory: “I didn’t know much at all,” about how to treat the diseases that were killing people and thought “I better learn more.”
After looking into different laboratories, he ended up at the one he thought “was the best in the world.” It was the Oxford laboratory of Sir Hans Krebs, the winner of the 1953 Nobel Prize for mapping out the cyclical sequence of metabolic reactions that are central to cellular energy production, today commonly referred to as the “Krebs cycle.”
Immediately after arriving in Oxford, Dr. Krebs gave Veech an extremely difficult project: measure the potential energy stored within the nucleotide coenzyme NADPH by measuring the ratio of its oxidized form to its reduced form. The task was incredibly technically difficult due to the vanishingly small amount contained within the cell. After a year of painstaking work, he had the result and presented his data to the group. “That can’t be right,” commented Krebs. “Well, goddamnit it is right,” Veech shot back. In the end, Veech’s results were right and led to him and Krebs co-authoring the longest publication of Kreb’s career.
In the fall of 1968, while still at Oxford studying under Krebs, Veech was invited to Boston to give a talk about his research. On his way home, his airplane, upon descent, crashed into Moose Mountain in New Hampshire. The crash killed 32 of 42 passengers and crew. Dr. Veech was one of ten others at the back of the airplane that survived. He was credited with pulling two other passengers to safety before the wreckage was engulfed in flames. One survivor vividly remembered standing with a group of survivors after they had escaped the mangled fuselage and then hearing a man yelling, trapped under the wreckage. The survivor recalled Dr. Veech and a man named Robert Kimball, the then assistant dean at Dartmouth, without hesitation rushed back into the burning wreckage to save the man. Dr. Veech then set about caring for the survivors as best as he could with no medical supplies. He did this despite having multiple lacerations, a broken rib and a crushed vertebra. One survivor described Dr. Veech as “The real hero of this accident.”
Shortly after recovering from the airplane accident he landed at the N.I.H. where he began studying the mechanisms behind cellular energy production and the unique importance of the then obscure form of metabolism known as ketosis. Hans Krebs and the great Albert Lehninger would often stop into his lab to talk about the latest discoveries and suggest directions for future research. Dr. Veech’s research ultimately led to the production of the ketone ester followed by a flurry of publications suggesting the ester’s potential ability to treat a variety of disease states.
The career of a scientist is a curious thing. All-too-often a great scientific career is only fully appreciated in hindsight. Dr. Veech had no interest in fame or self-promotion. He felt that it was “unseemly for doctors to promote themselves.” He hoped to be judged on the merit of his work in the present. More than anything, he wanted the world to appreciate the importance of the ketone ester and was frustrated that it’s potential to mitigate so many of our most immediate health issues wasn’t fully appreciated. “He was optimistic that each publication would convince people of the ester’s importance, but then he often felt let down,” said his college roommate who remained his close friend until his death.
But if history is a guide, the full appreciation of medical knowledge is often delayed or even forgotten. The British Royal Navy reluctantly made it policy to stock citrus for naval voyages fifty-years after James Lind provided unequivocal proof it was the cure for scurvy. The ketogenic diet, once the standard-of-care for pediatric epilepsy in the 1920’s, was all-but forgotten until being rediscovered and championed in the 1990’s by Hollywood movie producer Jim Abrahams after the diet instantaneously cured his son Charlie who had failed multiple drugs and was having hundreds of seizures a day.
The public may not have appreciated the potential of Dr. Veech’s ester as quickly as he would have liked, but by 2004 the Military had begun to take notice. After writing a letter explaining the potential of the ketone ester to improve the endurance and mental performance of Special Forces―citing previous publications including one showing that a mouse heart can pump 25% stronger while using less oxygen when the ketone body beta-hydroxybutyrate is added as a fuel, DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration, cut Dr. Veech a check for 10 million dollars to develop the ketone ester. “N.I.H. have never given money for this kind of metabolic research,” said Dr. Veech.
It was Dr. Veech’s greatest hope, however, that one day the ketone ester would have use beyond just military application; that it would be fully appreciated for what he felt it was capable of: improving the lives of millions of people.
In the winter of 2015, with his 55th Harvard reunion fast approaching, Dr. Veech penned a letter to his classmates extoling the virtues of the ketone ester: “As most of us will be entering our 8th decade, far beyond our allotted 3 score and ten, I thought it might be of interest to present to my classmates some of the research findings that have occupied me for the past 20 years concerning the accompaniment of aging.”
He then listed off 10 publications supporting the ester’s ability to ameliorate age related cognitive impairment.
A maverick scientist
Creative collaborations often fatefully fall together and Dr. Veech’s laboratory was no exception. Some aspects of it resembled a pirate’s ship: a crew of unlikely, mavericks that connected accidentally yet somehow fit together in a beautiful harmony. One collaborator, William Curtis, a Parkinson’s patient with a background in biochemistry, came to Dr. Veech’s lab in search of help for his disease after reading an article in the journal Neurology about a small study done at Colombia showing that a ketogenic diet improved the symptoms of Parkinson’s patients by 43%. The diet sounded miserable to Curtis, however, deep in the reference section he found Dr. Veech and went to see him. At first, Dr. Veech didn’t think he could help Curtis. “No, I can’t do anything. I can’t do anything for you. We don’t have enough stuff, go way,” he said. But Curtis stayed. The two eventually became friends and started collaborating. Today, Curtis credits the ketogenic diet and Veech’s ketone ester for taking him from nearly frozen to functional.
Genius, too, often appears in unusual packages. Those that knew Dr. Veech well describe him as a colorful character. To be sure, he had little patience for fools. He was refreshingly, and at times, shockingly, blunt. He said it exactly how he saw it with as few words as possible and little thought for political correctness. “Read the damn papers,” he once told a reporter asking him to explain the ketone ester’s significance. Although some may have been put-off by his rough edges, others appreciated his straight forward style. “I love how blunt you are,” said Asprey, during the 2017 interview with Dr. Veech.
There was another side to Dr. Veech. For those he loved he was gracious and thoughtful, as illustrated in a letter he wrote to the two sons of a deeply respected colleague, George Cahill, upon Cahill’s death. “It is one of my proudest accomplishments to have been cited as a single co-author with Dr Cahill [on] one of his last publications. Dr. Cahill died at 85 while singing with two of his daughter’s Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. I related this to a young student studying ketosis in athletes and she exclaimed ‘He must have gone immediately to heaven.’ That is an idea that all of us who knew him would share.”
One aspect of Dr. Veech that all his colleagues seem to agree on is that he was a rare scientific genius―on the scale of the greats from the “golden era” of biochemistry; names like Sir Hans Krebs, Otto Warburg, and Albert Lehninger.
This author was lucky enough to have had a beer with Dr. Veech and a small group of scientists at a conference a few years ago. We had a delightful conversation about many topics. Mostly we laughed. I can still picture Dr. Veech’s crooked smile and his authentic and infectious guffaw. It was one of a handful of moments I will cherish forever. I knew I was in the presence of greatness. Not today’s brand of greatness: celebrities, athletes or YouTube stars, but rather greatness of a different era.