Georges van den Berghe, a paediatrician and a biochemist


It is with deep regret that we announce the passing of Professor Emeritus Georges van den Berghe, former group leader at the de Duve Institute.

Georges was born in 1938 in Dendermonde, where his father was a general practitioner. He graduated in medicine from the KULeuven in 1962, specialising in paediatrics in the department of Professor Denys in Leuven. He was awarded a BAEF scholarship and continued his training at Stanford University in 1966-1967. Interested in hereditary metabolic diseases, in 1967 he joined the laboratory of Henri-Géry Hers, a collaborator of Christian de Duve known for his work on fructose metabolism and the elucidation of several inborn errors of metabolism, including fructose intolerance and type II and type VI glycogenoses. 

Georges van den Berghe is interested in the toxic effects of fructose, particularly evident in patients with fructose intolerance. He submits his thesis, entitled Metabolic effects of fructose in the liver, in 1977. With the help of a team he set up at the ICP (now the de Duve Institute), which included Drs Marie-Françoise Vincent and Françoise Bontemps, he studied the mechanism by which fructose and anoxia cause ATP depletion in the liver, leading to the degradation of purine nucleotides (derived from adenine and guanine). His extensive work on this subject has made him an internationally recognised specialist in the control of purine metabolism.

In 1985, together with Jaak Jaeken, a paediatrician colleague at KULeuven, he described adenylosuccinate lyase deficiency, the first defect in the purine synthesis pathway to be identified. A second defect was described by his laboratory a few years later. The research carried out on this subject led him to observe that an intermediate in the purine synthesis pathway exerts, in high concentrations, a stimulatory effect on a protein kinase (AMPK) that is extremely important for controlling the energy metabolism of cells. This discovery will enable his team and many other researchers to demonstrate the importance of AMPK in the regulation of various metabolic pathways. Georges van den Berghe was also interested in the mechanism of action of anti-cancer purine analogues, a project carried out in collaboration with Drs Françoise Bontemps and Eric Van den Neste.

Even though he had become a genuine biochemist, the paediatrician was never far away. For many years he was a consultant to the paediatric service at the KULeuven and an active member of the Belgian Paediatric Society. He was involved in teaching metabolic diseases at UCLouvain. In 1995, together with two other specialists in inborn errors of metabolism, he published an excellent handbook on the subject: Inborn errors of metabolism: Diagnosis and treatment. This book is based on contributions from specialists in the various metabolic diseases, but a remarkable editorial effort, for which Georges van den Berghe is largely responsible, has made it possible to standardise the structure of the various contributions and to produce an excellent, reasonably-sized guide for practitioners interested in the subject. In view of its success, the handbook has been republished and updated several times, with Georges' collaboration, up to the 5th edition in 2012. 

Georges Van den Berghe has been supported by the FWO and then the FNRS throughout his career. He has supervised numerous doctoral and master students. All his colleagues appreciated his scientific rigour, his sense of perfection in conducting experiments and in writing, his integrity, his great availability, and the fact that he was deeply caring, always in a good mood and with a good sense of humour.

As mentioned above, Georges led a team at the de Duve Institute, where he spent most of his career. He appreciated the stimulating scientific environment and the spirit of mutual aid and collaboration. On several occasions, he held positions of general interest. In recent years, he was a member of the fundraising committee.

We are losing a much-loved colleague. To his wife Zouzou and their four children and numerous grandchildren, we send our most sincere condolences.