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Sorted the "good" cholesterol from the bad

Richard Havel ’46

Richard’s groundbreaking research on lipid metabolism and lipoprotein biology profoundly impacted the understanding of human disease. Considered a founding father in the field, he refined and optimized the methodology for separating good cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein, [HDL]) from bad cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein [LDL]), and for recognizing the role that the different fractions of lipoproteins play in heart disease. Lipoproteins are tiny, sac-like complexes of lipid and protein that carry fats, such as cholesterol and triglycerides, in the blood. LDL is rich in cholesterol and is believed to deposit cholesterol in the arteries, while HDL seems to prevent fat deposits.

In 1955, Dick developed a method for separating lipoproteins from human plasma, a technique that is the basis for all separation methods in use today. His paper of that year on the lipoproteins in human serum, published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, remains among the most cited publications in the field of lipid biology. He also conducted some of the first studies demonstrating that lowering LDL cholesterol in the blood led to a reduction of atherosclerosis.

Dick went on to find the cause of a rare inherited disorder called familial type 1 hyperlipidemia, in which triglycerides build to high levels in the blood. In a classic series of studies, he worked out the pathway by which droplets of dietary fat, called chylomicrons, enter the bloodstream from the intestine and are delivered to various tissues to be metabolized. In 1973, he helped unravel the cause of another genetic disorder, type 3 hyperlipidemia, which produces elevated blood lipid levels and can lead to premature atherosclerosis.

Born in Seattle, Dick attended Chief Sealth High School, where he excelled in mathematics and science. At Reed he earned a bachelor’s in chemistry and met his wife, Virginia Johnson ’47. They fell in love on their first date and married in 1945. Richard went on to earn a medical degree along with a master’s in chemistry at the University of Oregon Medical School in 1949.

He taught at the University of Oregon Medical School and at Cornell University Medical College, and in 1956 joined the medical faculty at the UC San Francisco. Becoming one of the founding members of its Cardiovascular Research Institute (CVRI), he served as its director from 1973 until his retirement in 1992. Throughout his career he continued to make major contributions to understanding plasma lipoprotein metabolism, its regulation, and its importance in human disease.

“Havel’s work was truly seminal, and his endless enthusiasm for science and medicine made him a terrific role model,” said Shaun Coughlin, current CVRI director.

Throughout his life, Dick was very generous in giving to Reed, including a large contribution to the National Academy of Sciences Research Fund. Asked how the college had affected his life, he listed, “Number one: met my wife. Number two: helped decide my career and my attitude toward education.”

His wife and children, Timothy ’75, Christopher, Peter, and Julianne survive him.

Appeared in Reed magazine: September 2016

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