UCSD Pioneer In Neuroregeneration Dies At 81

AUGUST 30, 2005

Varon Silvio (1924 - 2005)

Silvio S. Varon, an emeritus professor of biology and medicine at the University of California, San Diego whose pioneering studies on the regeneration of nerve cells laid some of the groundwork for the development of potential therapies for Alzheimer's disease, died on August 28 in La Jolla, Calif., after a long illness. He was 81.

In 1986, Varon and Fred Gage, an adjunct professor of biology and medicine at UCSD now at the Salk Institute, demonstrated the potential of proteins called ¡ that promote cell growth and survival in protecting and repairing the brain. With two other groups of scientists, they showed that pumping nerve growth factor into the brains of adult rats could completely prevent injury-induced cell death, a finding that later helped UCSD medical researchers in 2001 develop the first gene therapy to prevent cell loss in a patient with Alzheimer's disease.

"Silvio Varon was one of the pioneers of neuroscience in the La Jolla community," said Eduardo Macagno, dean of UCSD's Division of Biological Sciences. "He arrived only a few years after the campus opened and built a strong research team investigating the cell and molecular biology of neuronal survival. He established standards of excellence that set the pattern for this work and trained numerous students and postdoctoral fellows. His imaginative work with growth factors set the stage for major advances in therapy."

Varon was born July 25, 1924 in Milan, Italy and was widely educated, both in subject matter and in the countries in which he studied. He earned his baccalaureate in 1941 from the Gymnase Scientifique of Lausanne (High School) in Switzerland and his doctorate in chemical engineering in 1945 from the Federal Polytechnique School (University) of Lausanne, Switzerland. He subsequently went on to earn his M.D., specializing in neuropsychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Milan in 1959.

He began his academic career in the psychiatry department at the University of Milan's medical school, then moved to the United States in 1962 to work as a research assistant in the biochemistry department of the City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte, California. After serving brief stints as an associate professor in the biology department at Washington University and in the genetics department at the Stanford University School of Medicine, Varon came to UCSD in 1967 as an associate professor in biology and medicine and was appointed in 1972 to full professor at UCSD, where he continued to teach and conduct research until his retirement in 1994.

In 1999, he endowed a professorship in neuroregeneration in UCSD's Division of Biological Sciences to support research in neurobiology germane to understanding the regenerative process in the central nervous system. The five-year chair was first held by Marla Feller, an assistant professor of biology, and is now held by Lisa Boulanger, an assistant professor of biology.

Varon is survived by his ex-spouse of 33 years, Ingrid Varon of La Jolla; his son Alexander of La Jolla; his daughter Gaia of Milan; and three grandchildren, Julia, Giulia and Giacomo. No memorial services are planned. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be sent to the Bishop's School Science Center in honor of Silvio Varon at 7607 La Jolla Blvd., La Jolla, CA 92037 (858) 459-4021