Lives of the fellows

Rolf Luft

b.29 June 1914 d. 21 May 2007
MD Stockholm(1940) PhD(1944) FRCP(1976) Hon DSc Salamanca Hon DSc Ulm Hon DSc Toronto

Rolf Luft was professor of medicine at the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden, and a pioneer in the fields of endocrinology, diabetes and mitochondrial research. He was born in Södermalm, Stockholm, into a poor working class Jewish family. His father, Jankel Luft, was a tailor. Luft gained a place to study medicine at the University of Stockholm, relying on scholarships to pay his way. He gained his MD in 1940, and his PhD in 1944 with a thesis on Cushing’s syndrome and the effects of cortisone.

In 1947, using a grant from the Family Wallenberg Foundation, he went to the United States to see how endocrinology was developing there. He was offered a post at Harvard University, but decided instead to return home, to establish endocrinology as a discipline in Sweden.

In 1949 he became assistant professor of endocrinology at the Karolinska Institute then, in 1958, a large donation, again from the Family Wallenberg Foundation, enabled Luft to establish the first endocrine clinic at the Karolinska Institute/Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm. He became director of the department of endocrinology at the Karolinska Hospital and associate professor of endocrinology. In 1961 he was appointed professor of endocrinology; seven years later he became professor of medicine. In 1989 the Rolf Luft Research Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology was inaugurated in a new building on the Karolinska Hospital site. The Rolf Luft Foundation for Diabetes Research was established in 2004.

Over the years, Luft made several significant advances in endocrine research. In 1941 he showed that androgens are produced by women in the adrenal glands. While he was in the United States, he showed that treatment with andrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) improved symptoms in patients with rheumatism. He went on to look at the metabolic effects of hormones, in particular ACTH, deoxycorticosterone acetate (DOCA), cortisone and growth hormone.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, he introduced hypophysectomy, or surgical removal of the pituitary gland, as a treatment for diabetic retinopathy and advanced breast cancer, hypothesising that a reduction in growth hormone secretion might improve the outcome in these conditions. He also showed that beta-cell secretion of insulin is due to heredity, and that stress hormones impair diabetic control.

With Errol Cerasi, he showed that an impaired first-phase insulin response to glucose is associated with the development of type two diabetes, and with Suad Efendic he demonstrated that the hormone somatostatin is produced in the islets of Langerhans in the pancreas, as well as the hypothalamus.

In 1958 Luft investigated the case of a woman who was sweating profusely and had to eat 3,500 calories a day, even though she weighed only 40kg. Luft eventually demonstrated she was suffering from a mitochondrial dysfunction: the first description of a disease in a cell particle. Her disorder became known as ‘Luft disease’ and Luft’s observation opened up a new field of medicine, focusing on changes in mitochondrial function.

Luft also played a role in the development of the Swedish pharmaceutical industry. In 1960, at the Karolinska Institute, growth hormone was produced for the first time from pituitaries, and production was transferred to the pharmaceutical company Kabi.

Luft was chairman of the Swedish Endocrine Society from 1961 to 1964 and president of the International Diabetes Federation from 1973 to 1979. He was an honorary member of almost all the national diabetes organisations. He was a member or fellow of a large number of national and international scientific and medical organisations, including the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Indian Academy of Medical Sciences and the Finnish Society of Science and Letters. He was awarded honorary doctorates from the universities of Salamanca, Ulm and Toronto. He was a member of the Nobel Committee for physiology or medicine from 1961 to 1980 and president from 1976 to 1978.

In his honour, the Karolinska Institute introduced the Rolf Luft Award, given to researchers in the fields of diabetes and endocrinology.

In his free time, Luft ran and hiked and was a cross-country skier. He walked from his apartment to the Karolinska University Hospital every day until the age of 90. He also liked to work in the garden of his summer house outside Stockholm, where he grew vegetables.

He died in 2007, aged 92, and was survived by his wife, Ritva.

RCP editor

[Cell Metabolism 6, September 2007, pp.162-3; Diabetologia May 2008; 51(5):697-9; Wikipedia – Rolf Luft – accessed 26 August 2014; Rolf Lufts Stiftelse för Diabetesforskning – accessed 26 August 2014]

(Volume XII, page web)

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