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Dr. Otto Heinrich Warburg

Dr. Otto Heinrich Warburg was born in 1883 in Freiburg. He studied chemistry and in 1906 became a doctor of biochemistry in Berlin. Afterward, he earned a doctoral degree in medicine in Heidelberg in 1911. In the period between 1908 and 1914, he was conducting research in Italy at the Marine Biological Station. Dr. Warburg was a good friend of Einstein, and Einstein’s work had a great impact on Otto’s research in the field of biochemistry. In 1931, Dr. Warburg won the Nobel Prize in Physiology. This was a result of his investigation of the metabolism of tumors and cells’ respiration, in particular respiration of cancer cells. More precisely, the Nobel Prize was for the discovery of the mechanism of action and nature of respiratory enzymes. He was even nominated for the second Nobel Prize in 1944 for his work on fermentation enzymes, nicotinamide, and flavin, but, unfortunately, he was not selected to receive the prize.


Dr. Warburg is famous for his hypothesis in which he claimed that cancer growth is mediated by the change in the way cells generate energy. According to him, while healthy cells produce energy by oxygen respiration in mitochondria, tumor cells use fermentation (i.e. anaerobic degradation of glucose) for the generation of energy. Dr. Warburg stated that cancer is caused by oxygen deprivation, which makes the environment overly acidic in the body. He believed that main cause of cancer is, thus, too much acid in the body (i.e. pH value that is below the psychological level). In fact, he discovered that cancer cells survive at lower pH values, and he believed that there is a close relationship between the acidic environment and lack of oxygen. According to the discovery of Dr. Warburg, regulating dietary pH balance would improve our chances of avoiding cancer. Later on, Dr. Warburg was claiming that pollution caused the diseases. For this reason, he has some strict rules on his nutrition. For instance, he insisted on obtaining only organic butter or eating only the bread that was made from organic wheat, grown on his own land. Or, when he was in restaurants, he would make a tea using a tea bag that he would bring with him.

In honor of Dr. Warburg as one of the leading biologists of the 20th century, the German Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology established the Otto Warburg Medal which is considered to be the highest award for molecular biologists and biochemists.

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