Geoffrey Burnstock

Neuroscientist hailed for breakthrough signalling theory in the nervous system


The neuroscientist Geoffrey Burnstock, who has died aged 91, was best known for discovering a signalling system within the autonomic nervous system. This revolutionary leap forward began with an accidental revelation said to rival the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming.
In 1962, while working at Melbourne University, Geoffrey and a couple of young colleagues began a routine experiment: they sent an electric current through a piece of smooth intestinal muscle after blocking two chemical transmitters, believed to be the only ones present in the autonomic nervous system. 

Because transmitters enable an impulse to bridge the gaps between nerve and muscle cells, and because Geoff thought all the transmitters were blocked, he was astonished to see the muscle relax when it was stimulated. 

Further investigations indicated there must have been another chemical transmitter after all, later identified by Geoff as adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and, later still, proved to be released from the same nerve as the known transmitters. At a stroke, this overturned the long accepted rule, Dale’s Principle, which stated that each nerve cell could release only  one transmitter. 

However, for 20 years there was passionate resistance to Geoff’s so-called “purinergic” signalling theories. The old-guard scientists could not accept that this 33-year-old upstart down-under had overturned a principle that had stood for 50 years, ever since it had been written up and named after Nobel prize-winning pharmacologist Sir Henry Dale. The tide only turned during the 1990s, when Geoff and teams working in parallel identified receptors for ATP and demonstrated their ubiquity.

His discoveries have massive ramifications. The chemical transmitter he identified not only appears to be in most nerves in the central and peripheral nervous systems, but it also activates receptors that have been identified on virtually every cell type in the human body. Consequently, it has the potential to provide a gateway for the creation of pharmaceutical drugs that can improve the treatment of many conditions. 

The blockbuster drug, Clopidogrel, which is used to prevent  blood clotting  and strokes, owes its development to Geoff’s “eureka moment”. But that is just one of many conditions where drugs research based on his discovery are being carried out. Pain, bladder disorder, osteoporosis, hypertension, cancer, cystic fibrosis, chronic cough and Parkinson’s Disease are just some of the conditions being targeted.

Geoff was born to working-class Jewish parents in 1929. An ancestor on his mother’s side was the 18th-century Gaon of Vilna. His father, who had lost a lung after being wounded in the First World War, struggled to make ends meet. Geoff remembers that they ate chicken only once a year,
After attending Greenford County Grammar School, where he showed his rebellious nature by locking his headmaster and his secretary in their offices  as punishment  for putting an end to the table tennis Geoff had organised for the whole school, he failed to be accepted by a medical school, possibly because he had the wrong accent and clothes, and no contacts.  

Despite being an atheist, he eventually ended up reading theology at King’s College, London, after national service, but switched to zoology, which was also the subject for his PhD in fish physiology.
After he married Nomi Hirschfeld, they emigrated to Australia so he could work as a lecturer in Melbourne University’s Zoology Department. There this unconventional, creative oddball flourished among the “give it a go mate” informal culture that prevailed there, using what spare time he had to become an accomplished sculptor, and making his breakthrough discoveries. He rose to become a professor and head of the department at the age of 35 in 1964. 

In 1975, Geoff returned to the UK to become Head of  Anatomy and Embryology at University College London (UCL), a department he transformed by seeking out like-minded academics who were original and creative, and then backing them to the hilt while continuing his own groundbreaking research. 

A typical response to the news that one of his academics was knocking down the wall in his office with a sledgehammer was to join in, after ascertaining that the works department which had promised to do the knocking down had repeatedly failed to do the job.

The one subject over which he did not have an open mind was Israel. He would not allow anyone to criticise the country that had provided a home for so many Jews. 

When he arrived at UCL, there were three professors in the department. By the time he stepped down as head in 1997, in order to move his own research team  to the Autonomic Neuroscience Institute on the Royal Free campus in Hampstead, it had no less than 26 professors, of whom seven were fellows of the Royal Society. This prompted the Nobel prizewinner Sir James Black to describe it as “an achievement without parallel in UK biomedical departments over the last 25 years.”

In 2017, he and Nomi moved back to Melbourne where he became an honorary professor at Melbourne University. Australia made him a Companion of the Order of Australia, the national equivalent of a knighthood, in 2018. He is survived by Nomi his wife and three daughters, Aviva (my wife), Tammy and Dina.

Hugh Sebag-Montefiore

Geoffrey Burnstock: born May 10, 1929. Died June 2, 2020

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