(Tokyo) Japanese microbiologist and biochemist Akira Endo, discoverer of statins that revolutionized the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular diseases, has died at age 90 following an illness.

He died last Wednesday, Keiji Hasumi, another Japanese biochemist whom Akira Endo had been a mentor and who had worked with him for a long time, told AFP, confirming local media reports.

“He was a tough and strict person, very perceptive. He could see the hidden essence of things,” praised Mr. Hasumi.

Born on November 14, 1933 into a family of farmers in Akita in northern Japan, Akira Endo was fascinated at a very young age by the effects of mushrooms and other molds on living beings.

This passion did not leave him, and at university he devoured a biography of Alexander Fleming, the British doctor and biologist who discovered in 1928 the first antibiotic, penicillin, isolated from a fungus.

In 1957 he joined the Japanese pharmaceutical company Sankyo as a microbiologist, and was interested in lipid metabolism and cholesterol biosynthesis.

From 1966 to 1968, he carried out research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. There, he realized the importance of developing an anti-cholesterol drug.

In New York “I was very surprised by the large number of elderly and overweight people, and by the eating habits of the Americans which were wealthier than those of the Japanese,” he recounted in an autobiographical article published in the journal Nature Medicine in 2008.

“I often saw ambulances transporting an elderly person to the hospital who had just had a heart attack. At the time, coronary heart disease was the leading cause of death in the United States.

Back at Sankyo in Japan, he resumed the study of his mushrooms and molds, convinced that they harbor the secret to blocking enzymes participating in cholesterol biosynthesis.

The researcher spent two years screening the chemical compounds of 6,000 fungal strains to try to confirm his hypothesis. Until his discovery in 1973 of mevastatin, the first representative of the statin class whose ability to reduce the level of LDL, the “bad cholesterol”, in the blood would later be proven.

But Sankyo (today Daiichi Sankyo) missed the boat and it was not until 1987 that the American laboratory Merck 

More than 200 million people worldwide take these drugs, with a market worth about $15 billion.

In the wake of their massive prescription, controversies over their possible harmfulness or ineffectiveness have multiplied in many countries, which has discouraged many patients from taking these treatments.

However, according to a meta-analysis published in 2022 in the European Heart Journal, taking into account 176 studies on the subject and based on data from four million patients, statin intolerance is overestimated and overdiagnosed.

Patients are more likely to have cardiovascular problems caused by high cholesterol than to have side effects from taking statins, according to the authors of this meta-analysis.

In a study published in 2017 in the British medical journal The Lancet, researchers at Imperial College London also estimated that several studies on the side effects of statins appeared to have convinced people to experience them themselves, a psychological phenomenon called “nocebo” effect.

Akira Endo left Sankyo in 1978 to become a teacher-researcher at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, who expressed his “gratitude” in a statement on Tuesday for his “great contribution” to the establishment.

He received numerous awards for his pioneering work, including the Albert Lasker Prize for Clinical Medical Research in 2008.

But not the Nobel Prize in Medicine, which he also deserved according to his former collaborators. “His work is truly extraordinary” and had “the same impact as the discovery of penicillin,” believes Professor Hasumi.