Akira Endo, a biochemist whose discovery of the statins launched a revolution in the prevention and treatment of coronary heart disease, has passed away at the age of 90.

Endo grew up on a farm in northern Japan, where he became enthralled by mushrooms and other fungi. That passion served him well when he was working at the Sankyo Research Laboratories in Tokyo in 1968. Given carte blanche to choose a project, Endo decided to search for a chemical that blocked cholesterol synthesis.

Endo painstakingly sifted through thousands of organisms, hunting for natural substances that block a key enzyme in the biochemical pathway that produces cholesterol, a major contributor to coronary disease. Endo and colleagues grew more than 6000 fungi, harvested the broth in which each had grown, and tested whether the material could interfere with an early step of cholesterol synthesis in a test tube. Eventually, they purified a promising substance from the fungus Penicillium citrinum, called mevastatin or compactin.

Remarkably, the compound that Endo found lowers concentrations of LDL (the bad cholesterol) but not HDL (the good cholesterol) in the bloodstream of animals and humans. By discovering statins, Endo ushered in a new era in preventing and treating coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death in the US and a major source of human suffering. His work touched millions of people and continues to prolong and improve the lives of many millions more.

Endo’s pioneering research was honored with a 2008 Lasker~DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award.