Medical Journal Dedicates Special Issue to Miller School’s Pioneering Biochemist

One of the Miller School’s most distinguished researchers, William J. Whelan, Ph.D., D.Sc., was honored in the December issue of Molecular Aspects of Medicine with a “Festschrift” celebrating his scientific accomplishments and continuing influence on biochemistry. A member of the Miller School faculty since 1967, Whelan is renowned in scientific circles for his discovery of glycogenin — the “missing link” in the molecular pathway that turns the body’s stored glucose into glycogen, the fuel for muscle cells.

In the journal’s special issue, “From Glucose to Glycogen and Back: Festschrift in Honor of Bill Whelan’s 90th Birthday,” several notable researchers provide their perspectives on Whelan’s numerous contributions to biochemistry.

“This is the first time we have dedicated an entire issue to one person,” said Angelo Azzi, M.D., Ph.D., editor-in-chief. “Bill is an excellent scientist who has also contributed to the development of biochemistry as founder and editor of a number of important journals.”

As professor and Chairman Emeritus of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Whelan continues to pursue new avenues of research in his field.

“I started my career as a plant chemist working on starch,” he said. “Now, I’ve gone full circle and have studied ways to increase the amount of starch in corn. Through genetic techniques, you could double the calories in corn, improving global food production and increasing the level of ethanol used for motor vehicle fuels. We had a patent on this but no one took it up. The same procedure could be used to remove nuisance polysaccharides that interfere with the preparation of foods.”

For the past decade, Whelan has also collaborated with former Miller School cardiologist Arthur Agatston, M.D., creator of the best-selling “South Beach Diet” and the Agatston score, a measure of calcium in diagnostic scans. They co-authored a 2010 paper, “The glycemic response is a personal attribute,” in International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Life that focused on the change in blood glucose content (glycemic response) following consumption of digestible carbohydrates.

A native of England, Whelan’s academic career took him from the University of Birmingham to the University of North Wales and the University of London, where he worked at the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine and as chair of Biochemistry at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine.

Whelan began studying glycogen synthesis in 1950 and later shared ideas with Edmond H. Fischer, Ph.D., a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist who contributed an article to the recent journal “Festschrift.” But it took Whelan another three decades before he overcame scientific skepticism and lost funding, and made the game-changing discovery of glycogenin.

Whelan joined the University of Miami as the medical school’s second chair of biochemistry, a position he held until 1991.

“Bill Harrington, who was the new chair of medicine, was a visionary who wanted someone in basic science to help him build the medical school,” Whelan said. “My wife Margaret and I liked Miami, and I have been happy working here ever since then. I believe in the University of Miami’s mission statement — teaching, research and service. I was able to keep teaching until last year, but still enjoy going into my office.”

With Harrington, Whelan also launched the school’s Ph.D. to M.D. program, which ran from 1971 to 1988. “Dr. Whelan is a dedicated professor who has been instrumental in shaping the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s graduate program and mentoring students and young scientists alike,” said Sylvia Daunert, Ph.D., professor and Lucille P. Markey Chair of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Associate Director of the Biomedical Nanotechnology Institute.

Soon after joining the school in 1967, Whelan founded the annual Miami Winter Symposium, which draws leading researchers who share recent findings and new strategies for advancing the field of medicine.

“Through the years, Bill Whelan has created and nurtured this program, which continues to attract some of the world’s top scientists,” said Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., Dean of the Miller School of Medicine, at the 2015 symposium.

In 2006, Whelan received the University of Miami’s Distinguished Faculty Scholar Award for lifetime achievement in research. His many other academic honors include being named a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, an honorary Member of the Royal College of Physicians of London, and a Fellow of the American Association of Academic Scientists. He also holds the honorary DSc degree of La Trobe University, Australia. He has also been president of the International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

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