Olney died Friday at his Marin County home, UC San Francisco announced. He had spent nearly his entire 25-year research career at UC San Francisco, the last 18 investigating amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS.
He resigned from the center in 2004 to attend to his own health. He enrolled as the first human subject in a test he helped design of a drug used to combat cancer and another for AIDS that showed promise in slowing ALS' progress. He adhered to the experiment's rigid guidelines and didn't seek to determine if he was receiving the drugs or medically useless placebos until the end of the test.
"It was typical of Rick to put the value of the medical research before himself and not take the drugs outside the boundaries of the trial," said Dr. Catherine Lomen-Hoerth, an Olney protege who took over leadership of the center. "He knew it was highly unlikely that a treatment would be found during his lifetime, but nothing was going to stop him from doing whatever he could to advance the research."
Olney was in the group that received the actual drugs.
"It may have helped," Lomen-Hoerth said. "It's hard to know. Early-stage clinical trials like this involve low doses that are designed to test drug safety, as opposed to efficacy."
At any given time, about 30,000 Americans are living with ALS, a small number when compared to other brain diseases.
About 5,000 cases are diagnosed every year. And though about 10% of the cases have genetic roots, it's not known how the other 90% occur. Much of current research is focused on genetic and environmental factors of the disease that still mystifies experts today as much as it did when New York Yankees slugger Lou Gehrig died of it in 1941.
Born in Munich, Germany, in 1947, Olney graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor's degree in 1968. He received his medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston in 1973.
He is survived by his wife of 38 years, Paula; two children, a grandson and a brother.