Obituary: Christian de Duve / Acclaimed cell biologist

Oct. 2, 1917 - May 4, 2013

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Christian de Duve, a Belgian biochemist whose discoveries about the internal workings of cells shed light on genetic disorders like Tay-Sachs disease and helped give birth to the field of modern cell biology, earning him a Nobel Prize, died May 4 at his home in Nethen, Belgium. He was 95

The cause was euthanasia, which is legal in Belgium, and which was administered by two doctors at Dr. de Duve's request, said his son Thierry, who lives in Los Angeles.

Gunter Blobel, a colleague of Dr. de Duve's at the Rockefeller University in New York City, said Dr. de Duve had been, "suffering from a number of health problems," including cancer, and decided to end his life after falling a few weeks ago.

Beginning in the late 1940s, Dr. de Duve used a centrifuge and other techniques to separate and examine the components of cells. He discovered the lysosome, a tiny sack filled with enzymes that functions like a garbage disposal, destroying bacteria or parts of the cell that are old or worn out.

His discoveries helped unravel the biology of Tay-Sachs disease and more than two dozen other genetic diseases in which a shortage of lysosomal enzymes causes waste to accumulate in cells and eventually destroy them. In Tay-Sachs, a buildup of fatty substances in the brain and other tissues leads to blindness, paralysis, mental retardation and death.

"We are sick because our cells are sick," he said.

After learning he had been awarded a Nobel, Dr. de Duve said that although his discoveries had brought great intellectual satisfaction, his goal was to use them to conquer disease. "It's now time to give mankind some practical benefit," he said.

Dr. de Duve shared the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Albert Claude, who first used centrifugal techniques to glance inside cells, and George E. Palade, who pioneered using the electron microscope to better understand cell structures. Claude died in 1983; Palade died in 2008.

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