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Wylie W. Vale Jr., at 70; made major impact in endocrinology

Salk Institute

WYLIE W. VALE JR.

NEW YORK - Wylie W. Vale Jr., an eminent endocrinologist who helped identify the hormones through which the brain governs basic bodily functions and who was involved in a combative race for the Nobel Prize, died Jan. 3 at his vacation home in Hana, Hawaii. He was 70.

The cause was not yet known, said his wife, Mary Elizabeth.

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Dr. Vale spent most of his career at the Salk Institute in San Diego, where he led efforts to identify the group of hormones involved in bodily functions like growth, reproduction, and temperature. Their discovery was a landmark in the history of endocrinology, coming after more than 30 years of bitter competition.

The Nobel Prize went to others, but Dr. Vale “really, in the long run, had the biggest impact in the field,’’ said Bert O’Malley, an endocrinologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

The first part of Dr. Vale’s career was spent as the principal scientist in the laboratory run by Roger Guillemin, who was locked in a 20-year race with a rival, Andrew Schally, to identify the hormones first.

The race, described by Schally as “many years of vicious attacks and bitter retaliation,’’ ended in a draw in 1977 when the Nobel medicine committee gave each man a quarter share of a prize, the other half going to Rosalyn Yalow.

But the race was not over. An unexpected second phase erupted when Dr. Vale split from Guillemin and started competing against his former mentor to find the remaining hormones.

The serene campus of the Salk Institute, a plaza that overlooks the Pacific Ocean, then became the home to two laboratories locked in a race for scientific glory, as Dr. Vale and Guillemin each sought to prove that he could succeed without the other’s help.

“They sharpened their swords and went at it full bore,’’ said Ronald Evans, a hormone expert at the Salk Institute.

Dr. Vale’s first target was the master hormone known as CRF, or corticotrophin releasing factor, which integrates and controls the body’s response to stress. Guillemin and Schally had spent seven years trying to isolate CRF before giving up and moving on to easier targets. Dr. Vale discovered CRF in 1981 and the next year found a second hormone, called the growth hormone releasing factor, or GRF, which had also eluded the older scientists. GRF controls the body’s growth.

Endocrinologists watched in amazement as the battle over the hormones raged. But they let the fight continue, mostly because of the importance of finding the hormones, but also because the dueling labs had acquired expertise in processing hundreds of thousands of sheep, pig, and cattle brains obtained from slaughterhouses for the research. It was a semi-industrial operation in which few others cared to join.

Despite the pressure of competition, Dr. Vale maintained his easygoing Texan style and sense of humor. By contrast, Guillemin, born in Dijon, France, in 1924, brought an immigrant’s intensity to his work. He was also, like his rival Schally, loath to share credit for his lab’s achievements with younger colleagues.

Toward the end of the fight with Schally, Dr. Vale became disenchanted with his mentor’s single-minded quest for scientific renown. During his search for GRF, Dr. Vale wrote the chemical formula for the hormone - it had not yet been published - on a large blackboard, which the members of Guillemin’s lab could see through the window every morning as they left the Salk parking lot. The formula was a decoy, intended to mislead the rival team. Dr. Vale kept the correct version on a piece of paper in his wallet.

Guillemin was aghast at the challenge from a man whom he had trained for his doctorate. Though he succeeded in finding the CRF and GRF hormones independently, in both cases Dr. Vale’s lab beat him to the punch.

Wylie Walker Vale Jr. was born in Houston on July 3, 1941. He attended Rice University and, after hearing Guillemin lecture on the releasing factors, as the brain’s hormones are known, joined Guillemin’s lab at Baylor, earning his doctorate in 1964.

Dr. Vale’s principal task was to detect the releasing factors’ whereabouts in the large volumes of tissue from the sheep hypothalamus, a region at the base of the mammalian brain. He helped Guillemin to his first success, the identification of a hormone involved with controlling the thyroid gland and the body’s temperature control system.

In 1970, Guillemin moved his team to the Salk Institute. Over the next three years, Dr. Vale played a central role in the lab’s discovery of hormones critical to the reproductive system and the body’s growth.

Dr. Vale founded two companies to exploit his discoveries. He also served as president of the American Endocrine Society and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

In addition to his wife, Dr. Vale leaves two daughters, his father, a brother, and a granddaughter.

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