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About SickKids

October 3, 2011

Schachter awarded Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art First Class

Dr. Harry Schachter was recently awarded The Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art First Class, a prestigious state designation from his birth country, Austria. A world-leader in the field of glycobiology, Schachter was honoured for his scientific achievements in glycobiology and most notably for his collaboration with scientists at BOKU: University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna. He was presented with the Cross at Glyco 21 held in Vienna from August 21 to 26, the 21st International Symposium on Glycoconjugates that brings together glycobiologists from around the world.

Schachter was born in Vienna in 1933. His father, a dentist, loved the arts and culture of the city, especially the opera. However, as a politically astute man, he foresaw the future for Jewish people in Vienna and moved his family out of the city he loved to Trinidad in September 1938. This was just a few weeks before Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass, a night of terror for many of the remaining Jewish people in Europe.

Schachter did not return to Vienna until the 1980s. He was invited by Dr. Leopold März , a biochemist starting a Glycobiology Department at BOKU University, who eventually became Chancellor (“Rektor”) of the University. He sought Schachter’s advice and assistance in launching the new department. Over the years, Schachter and his wife Judy became very close friends of März and his wife and returned many times – both on personal visits and for professional collaboration. For Judy, who survived the war in Slovakia, hearing someone speaking German had become traumatizing. By being around Schachter’s professional connections and establishing personal friendships that trauma eventually faded away. Schachter continued his collaboration with BOKU and the field of glycolobiology in Austria throughout his career.

Although the Cross is awarded by the Austrian government, März played a large role in ensuring that Schachter’s name was put forward. In his presentation speech, Josef Glößl, the current Vice-Rektor of BOKU, not only spoke about Schachter’s science but also discussed the events in Austria starting in the late 1930s. Schachter and other Jewish scientists present at Glyco 21 were very touched by this acknolwedgement.

“They gave the award for my science, but I could not separate what happened in the 1930s from my receipt of this award,” said Schachter. “Glößl’s speech was very moving.”

What first sparked your interest in science? When did you first decide you wanted to become a scientist?

I was always a bit of a bookworm as a kid. I was terrible at sports, so I studied and drifted into science because I liked it. My father, who was a dentist, wanted me to go into medicine, so I did. I got my MD, and during my internship I realized it just wasn’t for me. I wanted to go into research and so I did a PhD in biochemistry. Being an MD/PhD really gave me a good perspective in my research.

You have worked in glycobiology for many years. How did you choose this field? Would you be able to explain the field?

I got into the field of glycobiology very young. I was working with a protein chemist and one day he said to me, ‘This protein has sugar on it, figure out what that means.’ So then I began looking into sugars attached to proteins. I did the analysis and I got hooked on sugars because nothing was being done in that area. I like to say that I chose the low hanging fruit. I found a field where not a lot was being done and I went for it. I thought it was great because everything that I was doing was new.

At that time, there were only a few people working in the field. One expert was Dr. Saul Roseman, who worked at John’s Hopkins University in Baltimore. I trained with him for a few years and became a glycobiologist and that’s what I’ve done for the rest of my life. I became a world expert – I always say that it’s very easy to become a world expert if no one else is doing it – and this isn’t just false modesty.

The field of glycobiology can be described in the broadest sense as the study of the structure, biosynthesis and biology of sugar chains or glycans. It is a very small field in terms of the people involved. This year, at Glyco 21 in Vienna there were only 500 people. If this had been a conference of neurologists there would likely have been thousands of people attending.

Glycobiology is a very difficult and complex field. There are 20 thousand plus genes in the human body. These genes encode proteins, and probably well over a half of these proteins are glycosylated, meaning they are attached to sugars. Currently there are only about 20 proteins with sugars for which we understand what the sugar does very clearly.

Over the years, the advancements in the field have been great. When I go to conferences now, I always hear about new developments that are often beyond my understanding.

Can you highlight some of the research that you have done throughout your career?

I would say my major piece of work was finding the pathways for synthesis of a very complex bunch of sugars attached to proteins. We worked out the synthetic pathways for the branching of both N-linked and O-linked glycans (carbohydrate sugar chains), i.e. both the enzymes and the pathways involved.  

I also worked on “orphan” or rare diseases. These are inborn diseases in children that have a defect in glycosylation (the enzymatic process that attaches glycans to proteins, lipids, or other organic molecules). In this aspect of my career I collaborated with clinicians. One “eureka moment” in my life resulted after I read that Belgian paediatrician Dr. Jaak Jaeken, an expert on in-born errors of metabolism, had worked out the structure of one of the glycans from one of his patients. The structure suggested that one of the enzymes that I had discovered previously was defective in this patient, I asked him to send me cells from the patient. My analysis of these cells showed that the patient was missing my enzyme. This was the first inborn error of that particular type for which the enzyme defect was found.

You have had this amazing career. What advice would you give a young scientist just starting out?

I always say do what I did, go for the low hanging fruit. Obviously there are those who succeed in the ‘hot fields’ but why not try and find an area of research that you think is interesting but that very little is known about. Start up in that field and if you work hard, you’ll find something interesting and perhaps groundbreaking and you’ll be the first one!

Another thing I would advise is to think about getting your MD. I know it takes another four years but it opens a lot of doors. If you are interested in diseases, an MD gives you status and knowledge that you wouldn’t have otherwise. If you have medical and clinical interests in science, this is a good choice.

What do you hope people will always remember about Harry Schachter?

I would like to be remembered as an honest scientist who made some important contributions to the field of glycobiology. I never considered myself a “big shot” scientist. I always had a relatively small laboratory. That is not necessarily a good thing but that’s the way I liked it. Most important, I loved what I did and I enjoyed my scientific career immensely.