Rediscover STEAM
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Rediscover STEAM

Gerty Cori, Biochemist & Pioneer of Glycogen Metabolism

The elaborate assortment of revelations, disclosures, and breakthroughs around medicine and its plentitude of applications may have been predominantly pursued by men, yet, when the penumbra is lifted, the actuality presents itself and recognizes that medicine’s true cornerstone discoverer, was in fact, Gerty Theresa Cori. Immortalized as a counterpart of the Cori dynamic duo, while also an era’s state-of-the-art scientist, Cori emerged to prestige not only with her accolades, but also with unrivaled techniques, making revelations and reforming methodologies of the science community. However, with the patriarchate’s imminent looming, Cori’s story has been stripped of rightful accreditation until now.

Gerty Theresa Cori was born to parents Otto Radnitz and Martha Neustadt in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1896. Nurtured closely in a family of medical prestige, Cori had long familiarized herself with the unique utilities and applications of scientific revelations, from her father as a confectionary chemist to her pediatric uncle. Habituated with the conventions of the science spectrum, Cori was tutored domestically with the aid of preeminent educators in Prague, prior to enrolling within a prestigious female lyceum. Despite a slow start in her prerequisites of chemistry, Latin, and mathematics, Cori remained resilient, consuming material from the multifaceted spectra of information deriving from each subject, while championing vanguard ideas as well.

Bolstered with intellect and a unique proficiency within the domain of medical sciences, Cori was eventually selected as one of the inaugural female admittees to the notable Karl-Ferdinands-Universitait in 1914. During her enrollment at the institution, Gerty became romantically affiliated with Carl Cori, and by1920, the power couple tied the knot and successfully obtained their medical degrees before their eventual transfer to Vienna, Austria. Cori was hired at Carolinen Children’s Hospital, and her husband was hired in a laboratory. Throughout her employment at the hospital, Cori involved herself in the pediatric unit’s multitude of highly precocious experimental investigations, ranging from temperature regulation to thyroid treatments, featured in scientific journals and publications concerning abnormalities within blood disorders.

Gerty and Carl Cori

The Coris had a happy marriage, with Gerty optimizing her flexible employment hours and non-laborious circumstances to spend time with her husband. Yet, the beginning of World War I eventually diffused their solace, as Carl was drafted into one of the Austrian army’s militia groups, while Cori suffered from xerophthalmia, a medical condition where the eye fails to produce tears. Encumbered with an imminent illness and a constant state of jeopardy with the closing proximity of anti-semitism in Austria, both Gerty and Carl eventually sought out emigration to Buffalo, New York where they embarked on newfound employment endeavors. However, Gerty’s competencies were undermined again, and she found a position as the assistant pathologist at the State Institute for the Study of Malignant Disease. Disparaged despite her equally magnified accomplishments, the Institute discouraged collaborative efforts between Gerty and Carl. Yet, as years passed, Gerty finally secured a position as an assistant biochemist to her husband where they began spearheading their conductive research on the metabolism of tumors.

Intrigued further by metabolism, they progressed in specializing within carbohydrate metabolism, identifying how the body produces and supplies/stores energy. With the scarce universal understanding of the process of energy storage, transmission, and production, Cori alongside her husband began publicizing their findings fixated on biochemistry, particularly investigating the properties of glucose when metabolized. By 1929, Gerty and Carl had accumulated substantive research to corroborate and prompt hypotheses concerning the transmission and cyclical movement of glucose, from the muscle to the liver, and reversely back towards the muscle. Gerty and her husband used this theoretical assumption to elucidate the phenomenon of glucose metabolism and movement. They discovered that glycogen is initially converted into glucose within the muscle when energy is necessary to fuel physical activity, while the remaining sugar molecules are stored as lactic acid. The lactic acid was then hypothesized to be recycled by glycogen within the liver and reverted back into the muscles for storage and future usage.

This theory revolutionized our understanding of the “faulty sugar mechanism” that perpetuated diabetic conditions, a growing blanket dilemma internationally. Under the promising theory of the duo, they became distinguished for the cyclical movement of glucose from production, storage, distribution, and recyclage and as the primary deductor to lactic acid. The two eventually bid their farewells to the institute and pursued research corroborating their theory, further solidifying the renowned “Cori Cycle’’ of a Cori-ester, a derivative catalyst initially established as glucose-1-phosphate, integral for the glycogen conversion process. Commencing their research in 1936, the pair also identified the phosphorylase enzyme required to deduce glycogen and to catalyze the breakdown and synthesis processes of the polysaccharides. This discovery subsequently prompted the ability for enzymatic synthesis in vitro, allowing for the crystallization of phosphorylase and other enzymes. Contributing further, the pair conducted investigations, one of which indicated that the decrease of glycogen and blood sugar in hypophysectomized rats (the pituitary gland was surgically removed) coincided with increased rates of glucose oxidation. Their prolific reputation in research funded them more investigations, which led to the discovery of several pituitary extracts hindering the hexokinase enzyme with both in vitro and in vivo techniques, with insulin contracting this enzyme inhibition as well.

Despite their rise, the actualities of the male-bias climate began to resurface, as Carl was showered in universal acclaim, and Gerty as his meek assistant since institutions left and right discredited the equilibrated work attributed to the Cori Cycle discovery. Gerty and her husband then sought out to live in St. Louis where they were both employed at Washington University School of Medicine, with Carl as the chair of the pharmacology department, and Gerty as his research assistant. For sixteen years, the gender bias affirmations of institutions prevailed over Gerty and only in 1946 was she legitimized as a professor of biochemistry. Nonetheless, these adversities never stood a chance against her, as she solidified her contribution to the Cori Cycle revelation by discovering the varying enzymes that aided the conversion of glycogen to sugar, and back as glycogen. This helped to secure their 1947 Nobel Prize award in Physiology and Medicine. Several research projects later, the Cori duo had confirmed more information on the intricate properties of the carbohydrate metabolism process.

However, despite the accolades that showered them, another imminent threat had harbored, as Gerty was diagnosed with incurable myelosclerosis on a mountain climbing endeavor. The illness never obstructed her scientific proclivities, as she remained dedicated to her research fixating on enzymatic lesions in varying glucose-storage abnormalities or illnesses until her death. To this day, her death was never commemorated adequately, as she remains excluded in their supposedly “unanimous” acclamation and reception of awards, prestigious titles, and other commemorative plaques paying homage to solely the male counterpart of the Cori Cycle revelation. Gerty Cori’s story is a testament to the debaucheries gender bias plays in stripping women of their accomplishments and hence fortifies the reason why it is integral for us to divulge in the stories of these women.

by Brianna Renatte

References

“Carl and Gerty Cori and Carbohydrate Metabolism.” American Chemical Society, www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/carbohydratemetabolism.html.

“Changing the Face of Medicine | Gerty Theresa Radnitz Cori.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, 3 June 2015, cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_69.html.

“The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1947.” NobelPrize.org, www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1947/cori-gt/facts/.

“Gerty Theresa Cori (1896–1957).” American Chemical Society, www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/women-scientists/gerty-theresa-cori.html.

“Gerty Theresa Cori Facts.” Math, www.softschools.com/facts/scientists/gerty_theresa_cori_facts/1986/.

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