Advancing Epigenetics Towards Systems Biology

Gerty Radnitz Cori

A high-carb scientific diet

Name: Gerty Radnitz Cori
Nationality: Czech/American
Lived: 1896-1957
Fields:Biochemistry and medicine
Claim to fame: Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology 1947

With her husband, Gerty Radnitz Cori (1896-1957) made significant innovations in biochemistry which won them a Nobel Prize and greatly advanced understanding of diabetes and other metabolic diseases. The scientific establishment tried to keep Gerty in the shadow of her husband, but her determination and his support mean that she is rightly remembered as a pioneering researcher in her own right.

Medical ambition

Gerty Theresa Radnitz was born on 15 August 1896 into a Jewish family in Prague, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her father, Otto Radnitz, the manager of a sugar refi nery, and mother, Martha Neustadt, had three daughters, of which Gerty was the eldest. She was tutored at home until the age of ten when she enrolled at a lyceum for girls. Encouraged by her uncle, a professor of paediatrics, Gerty developed an ambition to become a doctor. The subjects taught at the girls’ school were not suffi cient to allow entry to study medicine at university but, far from deterring her, Gerty transferred to a Gymnasium to pursue the necessary education.

Love in the lab

In 1914, Gerty entered the medical school at the German University of Prague, as one of a very small number of female students. During her time there, she met fellow student Carl Cori who shared her interest in laboratory research and love of skiing and mountain climbing. In 1920, they graduated and got married, with Gerty converting to Catholicism.

A career on two continents

During their first year of marriage, the Coris collaborated on a study of the immune bodies in blood. They both accepted positions at the University of Vienna and Gerty subsequently spent two years at the Karolinen-Kinderspital der Stadt Wien, working on the problem of temperature regulation in congenital myxoedema before and after thyroid therapy. The Coris soon began to realise that, in terms of both political stability and their careers, the situation was better in the United States.

Defying the detractors

Crossing the Atlantic in 1922, they took up posts at the New York Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases (later the Roswell Park Memorial Institute) in Buffalo, New York State. Carl was advised by his colleagues and employers not to continue to collaborate with his wife, as it would be detrimental to his career.
He ignored their advice and together they began work on how energy is transmitted in the human body and how sugar is metabolised.
During their time at the Institute, they jointly published 50 papers and Gerty published 11 on her own. Having become naturalised US citizens in 1928, the following year the Coris put forward the theory that would later win them the Nobel Prize and which bears their name. The Cori cycle explains the movement of energy in the body – from muscle to the liver and then back to the muscle – showing the role of lactic acid in the conversion of glucose to glycogen.

A Nobel ending

As the Roswell Institute was not the right place to pursue their particular research interest, the Coris decided to find a new working environment. Nepotism rules, however, prevented the hiring of a couple, which meant that several universities refused to appoint them both and were only willing to take Carl. Finally, in 1931, the Coris moved to the medical school at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, where Carl was made chair of the department of pharmacology. Gerty was hired as a research associate on a token salary, but at least they could continue their co-operative work on glycogen.
It was not until Carl was appointed chair of the new biochemistry department, only a few months before the Coris received the Nobel Prize, in 1947, that Gerty was given a full faculty appointment as a professor of biochemistry. That same year, she began to show signs of myelofi brosis, a rare blood disease affecting bone marrow. She fought the disease for ten years, refusing to give up her research activities until the last few months of her life. On 26 October 1957, Gerty died of kidney failure.

Scientific achievements

Gerty and her husband were awarded numerous accolades for their groundbreaking work, including having a crater on the moon named in their honour. The greatest of these honours, however, was the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology, which the Coris shared with the Argentinean Bernardo Houssay in 1947. 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.
The Coris are also remembered for the discovery and isolation of the molecule glucose-1 phosphate (later called cori ester). Working on her own, Gerty developed the conceptual classifi cation of glycogen-storage diseases in children and she was the first scientist to demonstrate that a defect in an enzyme was the cause of a human genetic disease. This discovery was described in 1958 as “an unmatched scientific achievement”.
Taken as a whole, the work that the Coris carried out on carbohydrate metabolism contributed greatly to the understanding and treatment of diabetes and other metabolic diseases.
The couple also played an important role in scientific history with their struggle to have Gerty’s contribution to their co-operative work fully recognised.