Obituary: Dr. Burton Shapiro, dental and genetic scientist,

  • Article by: JOY POWELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 16, 2014 - 7:28 PM

A world renowned scientist, Dr. Burton Shapiro discovered causes of genetic disorders ranging from cleft palate to Down syndrome during 40 years of researching and teaching at the University of Minnesota.

His other accomplishments include creating the first required medical genetics course in a dental school in the nation — a class he taught annually from 1963 through 2003.

Shapiro, of St. Paul, died Aug. 9 of complications of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 80.

“He was a gifted dentist-scientist and educator who made significant contributions to the education of our students and to the body of knowledge that exists about how the natural world works,” said Dr. Leon Assael, dean of the U’s School of Dentistry.

“We are all beneficiaries of his insights and discoveries that expand our understanding of some of the most fundamental questions of biology and human development,” Assael said. “He left this world a better place.”

Shapiro grew up in Manhattan, earning a psychology degree from Tufts University and a Doctor of Dental Sciences from New York University. After dental school, he served in the Navy as an endodontist.

He received a master’s degree in pathology and a Ph.D. in genetics from the U in 1966.

Shapiro became a professor and chair of the Department of Oral Biology, a division he founded. His many honors included the highest given by the U, Century Club Professor of the Year, in 1987.

Shapiro served on numerous committees for the graduate, medical and dental schools. He also served two terms in the University Senate. He mentored more than 30 students in his laboratory.

Using electron microscopes and histochemistry to identify chemicals in cells and tissues, he explored the cause of cleft palate, a congenital deformity in which the two plates of the skull that form the roof of the mouth are not fused.

He introduced the idea of “programmed cell death” in skull plates in the embryo, according to the U’s Academic Health Center. His research involved epithelial, a membrane covering most internal and external cells.

“I came up with the idea of programmed cell death of portions of embryonic epithelial cell covering,” Shapiro once said in an interview. “The covering goes away and the two halves fuse, otherwise you have a cleft palate.”

He also researched and wrote about Down syndrome, one of the most common chromosomal defects.

He explained how an extra chromosome leads to characteristic growth delays, intellectual disabilities and distinctive facial features in those born with the disorder.

Peers have called Shapiro a “visionary” for his research into cystic fibrosis, another congenital disorder that also shortens life spans. It causes thick, sticky mucus in the lungs and other organs. Shapiro was senior author on a 1989 book about the disease.

He ran one of the biggest cystic fibrosis research laboratories in the world. In an era when scientists had not yet grown cells in culture, Shapiro figured out how to culture an unlimited supply.

He found that cystic fibrosis cells underwent premature aging and death. A more significant discovery came when, working with graduate students, he found that cells with cystic fibrosis had more calcium, and that it came from mitochondria, the powerhouses of cells.

Shapiro wrote 118 scientific manuscripts, lectured worldwide and has been cited in numerous scientific papers. He retired in 2005.

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