Beautiful Minds: Rosalyn Yallow, Nobel Laureate

Rosalyn Yallow (1921 – 2011), medical physicist, and a co-winner of the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (together with Roger Guillemin and Andrew Schally) for development of the radioimmunoassay technique.

The excitement of learning separates youth from old age. As long as you’re learning, you’re not old.”

Words of wisdom from Rosalyn Sussman Yalow (1977 Nobel laureate in Physiology or Medicine) who died on this day in 2011, aged 89.

Trained as a nuclear physicist, Yallow parlayed her intelligence and research tenacity to revolutionise the medical world by developing radioimmunoassay, a technique for determining antibody levels by introducing an antigen tagged with a radioisotope. With the help of radioimmunoassay, she proved that type 2 diabetes is caused by the body’s inefficient use, and not the lack of insulin.

Here is her remarkable story.

Yalow was born in the Bronx, New York, the daughter of Clara and Simon Sussman, and was raised in a Jewish household. As a smart but poor New York City girl, Yalow attended Hunter College, a highly competitive free women’s college where she excelled in all academic subjects. Her mother had hoped that her daughter would become a teacher, but Yallow wanted to be a physicist and her dream solidified after she became Hunter’s first physics major, and with honours. The year was 1941.

The 1940s was a thrilling time for physics, especially for nuclear physics, and Yalow was caught by “physics fever.” Once she read Marie Curie’s biography and attended a colloquium given by Enrico Fermi on nuclear fission, she was hooked. But graduate programs were not eager to give assistantships to women, and she could not pay for a degree. Determined, she took a job as a secretary for a biochemist at Columbia University in exchange for classes.

Yalow got her break not long after, when the US joined the war and male scientists signed up to fight. Given the shortage of male scientists, she was able to secure an assistantship at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in the College of Engineering. In a faculty of 400, she was the only woman.

She earned her PhD in nuclear physics and learned how to build and use equipment to measure radioactive substances. This opened another door that enabled her to make a transformative contribution to medical science: radioimmunoassay, a method for measuring concentrations of substances in the blood.

In 1947, at the age of 26, she was back in New York to join the Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital in the Bronx to develop the Radioisotope Service, a department that would explore medical applications of radioactive isotopes. Three years later, Solomon Berson, a physician and clinical scientist, joined her small team at the VA, kicking off a 22-year research collaboration that would lead to major advances in medical biochemistry.

Rosalyn Yalow with her research partner Solomon Berson, when she won the 1961 Ely Lilly Award of the American Diabetes Association. Courtesy of Benjamin Yalow.

Yallow and Berson first attempted to use radioisotopes to estimate blood volume more accurately. Soon, they applied their methods to insulin – the all-important hormone that regulates the absorption of glucose from the blood.

Insulin was an attractive subject of research because its purified form was easy to obtain, and it was easier to work with than other hormones. But Yalow was also drawn to insulin for a personal reason: her husband was a diabetic.

To begin, Yalow and Berson injected minute amounts of the radioactive-tagged insulin into volunteers, including themselves. Over the course of several hours, they took frequent blood samples to determine how quickly the insulin was being metabolised and leaving the bloodstream. Using this technique, they found that people with type II diabetes were unable to process insulin not because they lacked the hormone, but because their bodies produced an antibody that rejected it. It was a revelation and a pathbreaking discovery that paved news ways for the treatment of diabetes. Moreover, Yalow and Berson’s method – using radioactively tagged substances to measure antibodies produced by the immune system – would make biological research possible on a whole new level. Radioimmunoassay, or RIA, as they called it, could detect extremely low concentrations of substances, far lower than ever before.

Today, their method is used for everything from ascertaining proper dosages for antibiotics, and screening for the hepatitis virus, to treating couples struggling with infertility. And the list is still growing.

Rosalyn Yalow receives the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1977 from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden. Courtesy of Benjamin Yalow

The only difference between men and women in science is that the women have the babies. This makes it more difficult for women in science, but… it is merely another challenge to be overcome.

~ Rosalyn Yallow

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