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David Gitlin, Pediatrician and Pioneer in Protein Chemistry, Dies at 88

PITTSBURGH, Jan. 28, 2010 – David Gitlin, M.D., a pediatrician and immunochemistry pioneer whose work led to the discovery of inherited causes of severe infections as well as a biomarker of fetal birth defects that is still in use, died Jan. 4 in Islamorada, Fla., of gastrointestinal cancer. He was 88.

Dr. Gitlin devoted most of his career to studying and treating children with inherited gene alterations that made them highly susceptible to infection, now called immunodeficiency diseases. He combined his knowledge of biology, protein chemistry and medicine to develop new techniques in pediatric research studies.

In 1963, Dr. Gitlin joined the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine as a professor of pediatrics, and he held the title of emeritus professor at the time of his death. He was a member of the Pittsburgh Pediatric Society, and from 1971-73 served as chair of its postgraduate education committee.

“During his illustrious career, Dr. Gitlin made invaluable contributions to further the developing field of immunochemistry,” said Arthur S. Levine, M.D., senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and dean, School of Medicine, University of Pittsburgh. “In fact, I have known of and admired his work since I was a medical student.”

While working at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Gitlin and Charles A. Janeway, M.D., described in 1953 the syndrome of agammaglobulinemia, an inherited disorder in which affected children are susceptible to repeated, serious infections because their bodies can’t produce enough immunoglubulins to fend off bacteria and viruses. Their work explained for the first time in modern biological terms the relationship of specific plasma proteins to infection resistance, and ultimately led to the development of gamma globulin replacement therapy that is used today in thousands of children. Their research also explored the transfer of immunoglobulins from mother to developing fetus, helping to define the factors critical for normal immune defenses in the human infant.

Dr. Gitlin’s other studies described plasma protein metabolism in children with kidney disease, unraveled the process of intestinal iron absorption, and identified ceruloplasmin deficiency as a marker for Wilson’s disease. His protein synthesis work identified alpha fetoprotein as a critical indicator of potentially life-threatening birth defects in the developing baby. For these efforts, he received the Medal of the University of Helsinki in 1967 and became the first recipient, in 1968, of the Federico Gomez Award from the Hospital Infantil de Mexico, Mexico City.

His other awards include the 1956 E. Mead Johnson Award from the Society for Pediatric Research, where he served on the executive council from 1961 to 1963, and the 1963 Borden Award for Pediatric Research from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Gitlin also was a member of the American Pediatric Society, the American Society for Clinical Investigation and the American Association of Immunologists.

Dr. Gitlin was born in 1921 in the Bronx, attended Stuyvesant High School and was a 1942 Phi Beta Kappa alumnus of the College of the City of New York, where he was a Naumberg scholar. He received his medical degree in 1947 from the New York University School of Medicine and, in 1976, was awarded the school’s Solomon A. Berson medical alumni achievement award.

Following an internship at Morrisania City Hospital in the Bronx, he completed residency and research fellowships at Boston Children’s Hospital and then joined the faculty at Harvard Medical School where he conducted basic and clinical investigation. In 1958, he received a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to work with A.S. McFarlane at Mill Hill, London, to develop techniques to trace label proteins that are still in clinical use.

In 1944 he married Geraldine Mary Wadsworth, who died in 2008. His daughter, Susan, died in 2008. He is survived by his son Jonathan, a pediatrician in Nashville, Tenn., and three grandchildren, Joshua, Zachary and Anna.

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