Biomedical Sciences

Prof Tony Harmar 1951- 2014

The School of Biomedical Sciences was deeply saddened by the death of Prof Tony Harmar on Thursday 10th April.

THarmar news

Tony Harmar graduated from the University of Cambridge with a BA in Biochemistry in 1973 and was awarded a PhD in Pharmacology by the same institution in 1977.

After a post-doctoral fellowship at the Friedrich Miescher-Institut, in Basel, Switzerland, he spent three years as a research assistant at the University of Bristol before moving to Edinburgh as a non-clinical scientist at the MRC Brain Metabolism Unit.

He was appointed an Honorary Professor at this University in 1995, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1996, but remained employed by the MRC until 2001, when he joined the academic staff of the University.

In the years that followed he served as Deputy Head and then as Head of the Division of Neuroscience, and then as Head of the School of Biomedical Sciences, stepping down from that role in 2008 to concentrate on his research, and to focus on his work with The International Union of Pharmacology (IUPHAR).

That work involved developing a database integrating pharmacological, chemical, genetic and anatomical information for major drug targets encoded by the human genome - including G-protein coupled receptors, nuclear receptors, enzymes and ion channels.

This has now become a massive online database accompanied by a series of overviews of its content published as reviews in the British Journal of Pharmacology; this is a resource of major international importance for drug discovery

Tony’s own research contributions, involving more than 100 peer-reviewed papers was also highly influential - his work has been cited more than 7,000 times. In the early 1980s, he demonstrated for the first time the biosynthesis of the neuropeptide substance P and a related peptide (subsequently shown to be neurokinin A) in sensory neurons.

Cloning of the cDNA encoding the human substance P precursor led to studies that demonstrated an obligatory requirement for nerve growth factor for the expression of the preprotachykinin gene in sensory neurons.

Substance P is an important mediator of pain and inflammation in sensory neurons, and this work has important implications for our understanding of pain mechanisms and the effects of nerve injury upon pain perception.

Tony’s research on serotonin (a neurotransmitter prominently linked with mood) was critical in linking polymorphisms in the serotonin transporter gene with susceptibility to major depression.

The greater part of his research though has been on neuropeptides - especially vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP), which, despite its name, is expressed in some vitally important populations of neurones in the brain.

Tony showed, in a series of elegant and highly cited papers, that VIP, by its actions in the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the brain, mediated by a specific receptor molecule discovered by his group (the VPAC2 receptor), plays an essential role in controlling many circadian rhythms - the daily rising and ebbing of many physiological functions and behaviours.

Tony died on April 10th 2014, leaving his wife, Jillian, and sons William and Thomas. Throughout his time in Edinburgh, Tony was known as a warm and generous colleague, committed to excellence both in research and in teaching.

His tireless and selfless work for the academic communities of which he was a part gained him the deep respect, affection and loyalty of all those with whom he worked. He will be sorely missed.