Alfred Alberts, Lovastatin Discoverer, Dies

The Merck biochemist found the compound that led to a popular cholesterol-lowering drug.

Jul 5, 2018
Kerry Grens
Alfred Alberts

Alfred Alberts, a biochemist at Merck who discovered a cholesterol-lowering compound that led to the development of a widely used statin, died June 16. He was 87.

“Behind every drug there are heroes,” Michael Brown, a Nobel laureate at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center who uncovered key cholesterol-processing steps in cells, tells The New York Times. And Alberts was “an unsung hero.”

Born in 1931 in New York, Alberts studied cell biology, but dropped out of a PhD program at the University of Maryland to take a job at the National Institutes of Health. There, he met his longtime collaborator P. Roy Vagelos in 1959 and began working in his lab. It was the beginning of a life-long partnership.

“He was my right-hand man,” Vagelos tells The Times. “We were more like brothers, like twins.”

In the 1960s, Alberts followed Vagelos to Washington University in St. Louis and, despite not having a PhD or MD, became an associate professor there. A decade later, Vagelos and Alberts moved to Merck and set out to develop a drug that would lower cholesterol. Alberts identified such a compound in a fungus, which eventually was worked into a medicine and approved in 1987.

Alberts was a modest scientist who didn’t get a lot of credit for his contributions, but lovastatin, as the drug came to be named, “[t]hat was Al’s discovery,” Vagelos tells The Times.

Alberts is survived by his wife, three children, and two grandchildren.