ISSUED 12/18/98

#98-123

Contact: Kara Villamil or Mona S. Rowe

 

ALFRED WOLF, PIONEER AT JUNCTION OF CHEMISTRY & MEDICINE, DIES AT 75

UPTON, NY - Alfred P. Wolf, the father of an important field at the junction of medicine and chemistry, died December 17 at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson, NY. He was 75 years old.

Wolf, a senior chemist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory, made pioneering contributions over nearly 50 years in the field of organic radiochemistry.

His discoveries were instrumental to the development of positron emission tomography, or PET, a tool now used worldwide to diagnose disease and study the brain's inner workings.

"Al's work laid the foundation for many of the nuclear medicine and medical imaging procedures performed in the world today, which help save thousands of lives each year and expand our knowledge of our brains and our bodies," said his BNL colleague Joanna Fowler. "Though he worked mainly with short-lived elements, his impact on humankind will last forever."

Wolf's career contributions mainly centered around the synthesis of molecules that contain both radioactive and non-radioactive elements. Such compounds have found a wide variety of uses, from diagnosing disease to tracking the movement of air in the atmosphere. They have also helped in the study of basic chemical processes.

The short-lived radioactive elements, such as carbon-11 and fluorine-18, must be made in a small particle accelerator known as a cyclotron, then swiftly attached to the organic molecules before their usefulness fades - adding a "beat the clock" urgency to already intricate chemical synthesis processes.

After the radioactive elements have been attached to an organic molecule, the result is called a radiotracer - a chemical beacon that sends a faint but detectable signal. If a radiotracer is injected into the body, that signal can be picked up by medical imaging equipment to track, for example, brain activity or the location and movement of a drug such as cocaine through the body.

In 1976, Wolf, Fowler and their colleagues developed a form of sugar - called 18F-fluorodeoxyglucose - that is now used in hospitals worldwide to make images of brain function and to diagnose cancer and heart disease using PET scanning.

He is survived by his son Roger of Santa Monica, CA, and by two granddaughters.

A Founding Father

Alfred Wolf was born in New York City on February 13, 1923. He began his career as a physical organic chemist at BNL in 1951, after receiving bachelor's and master's degrees in chemistry from Columbia University. He was awarded his doctorate in chemistry from Columbia in 1952.

Wolf's education was interrupted by World War II, when he spent 1943 to 1945 in the Army working on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

He joined BNL only four years after its establishment as a multi-disciplinary institution dedicated to peaceful uses of the atom.

His early studies involved research on the chemical fate of carbon atoms using the BNL research reactor, a 60-inch cyclotron and the Cosmotron, one of BNL's earliest accelerators, or "atom smashers."

His investigations of the factors controlling the chemistry of "hot," or radioactive, atoms such as carbon-11 provided the knowledge required to control the chemistry occurring in accelerator targets.

By the mid-1960's, his fundamental studies had laid the groundwork for the synthesis of small, radiolabeled compounds in pure form for organic synthesis and basic chemistry studies. This grew into a new interest in developing radiotracers labeled with short-lived positron emitting isotopes like carbon-11 so that the tracer method could be applied to visualize biochemical transformations in living systems.

Said Fowler, "Al approached and solved problems in this area with his typical rigorous style, measuring important characteristics of the hot atoms and developing the targets that came to be used in the cyclotron to produce the large quantities of carbon-11 and fluorine-18 labeled precursors. He also developed the methods that we now use routinely to make the radiotracers used in PET imaging today. Indeed, most of the cyclotron-PET centers around the world have one or more individuals who, to their great advantage, spent part of their careers at Brookhaven working with Al Wolf."

A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Wolf was given ACS's Nuclear Chemistry Award in 1971, and both the Society of Nuclear Medicine's Aebersold Award in 1981, and its Hevesy Nuclear Medicine Pioneer Award in 1991. He also received BNL's highest scientific honor, the Distinguished Research & Development Award, in 1991.

In 1996, he was honored by the Institute for Clinical PET with its Distinguished Scientist Award. And, in 1997, he was recognized by the International Isotope Society with the Melvin Calvin award. The American Chemical Society's 1998 meeting featured a symposium in his honor.

Wolf published over 325 papers on basic and applied research in chemistry and nuclear medicine. He was also co-inventor on several patents for radiotracers and chemical techniques.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory creates and operates major facilities available to university, industrial and government personnel for basic and applied research in the physical, biomedical and environmental sciences, and in selected energy technologies. The Laboratory is operated by Brookhaven Science Associates, a not-for -profit research management company, under contract with the U.S. Department of Energy.


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