Wylie W. Vale Jr., a professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla and an internationally renowned expert on brain hormones who led a team of Salk researchers that discovered the brain hormone that triggers the body’s reaction to stress, has died. He was 70.
Vale died unexpectedly in his sleep Jan. 3 while on vacation in Hana on the Hawaiian island of Maui, said his wife, Betty. The cause of death has not been determined.
The Texas-born Vale, who joined the Salk Institute in 1970, became one of the world’s leading authorities on peptide hormones and growth factors that provide communication between the brain and endocrine system (the organs that produce the body’s hormones).
His research team’s landmark discovery came in 1981.
“He cracked one of the most challenging problems of our era: He discovered the brain hormone that serves as the on-off switch to the body’s stress response, sometimes called the fight-or-flight response,” said Ronald M. Evans, a professor and hormone expert at the Salk Institute.
“This has been the subject of speculation and investigation for more than a hundred years,” said Evans, adding that Vale had been working on the problem for about 15.
“There was a big effort to try and find the secret for how the stress response is controlled, but the molecule was elusive, present in vanishingly small amounts,” Evans said. “The technological challenge was enormous. This was like trying to climb Mt. Everest in biology.”
Vale had earned a doctorate in physiology and biochemistry in 1968 at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, where he trained in the lab under Roger Guillemin.
After Vale followed Guillemin to the Salk Institute in 1970, they continued to work together on perfecting the technology that led to isolating the first two brain peptides. That work led to Guillemin’s becoming one of three American scientists who won the 1977 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine.
In 1978, Vale struck out on his own, setting up an independent lab at the Salk Institute to continue the hunt for the elusive stress hormone.
After Vale’s 1981 breakthrough, “neuropeptide discovery exploded into a whole new field of research, which continues today,” Evans said.
“The molecule he isolated was called CRF — corticotropin releasing factor,” Evans said. “It’s how the brain controls the production of cortisone from the adrenal gland, which is part of the stress response.
“But the discovery of CRF led to the realization that there was a small family of related neuropeptides that help to control anxiety, depression, anorexia, diabetes and drug abuse.”
In 1982, Vale and his team discovered another hormone: the growth hormone releasing factor (GRF), which controls the body’s growth. “It was another big advance in completing the puzzle of neuropeptides,” Evans said.
Vale and his team discovered more than a dozen neuropeptides and their signaling mechanisms.
Vale co-founded two biotech companies — Neurocrine Biosciences and Acceleron Pharma — that have gone on to develop the medical and therapeutic potential of his discoveries.
“There are several drugs currently in the clinic and both are for controlling the stress response, as well as controlling metabolic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease,” Evans said.
Another treatment that’s in advanced clinical trials controls endometriosis, an inflammatory disease of the ovaries commonly linked to infertility.
Vale, who was born in Houston on July 3, 1941, and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Rice University in 1964, also was an adjunct professor of medicine at UC San Diego. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1992.
In addition to his wife of 42 years, Vale is survived by his daughters, Elizabeth Gandhi and Susannah Howieson; his father, Wylie; his brother, Shannon; and a granddaughter.