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Profile of Bibudhendra Sarkar

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Dr. Bibudhendra Sarkar

By: Daniel Puiatti

Dr. Bibudhendra (Amu) Sarkar, PhD, FCIC, FRSC (UK)

  • Senior Scientist Emeritus, Molecular Medicine
  • Chairman, Andrew Sass-Kortsak Award Committee
  • Committee Member, Advanced Protein Technology Centre
  • Committee Member, Global Child Health: SickKids International
  • Professor Emeritus, Department of Biochemistry, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from? /Where did you study?
I was born in India and received my early education there. Then, I went to the United States to do my PhD in biochemistry at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. There, I studied under the supervision of Dr. Paul Saltman and Dr. Bo Malmström, a Visiting Professor from Sweden, who later became the Chairman of the Chemistry Committee of Nobel Prize. Afterwards, I studied protein chemistry with Dr. Hal Dixon at the University of Cambridge and I also studied quantum biochemistry with Dr. Alberte Pullman at the Université Paris-Sorbonne.

2.   What are you researching right now?
Currently, my research is focused in two areas: metal caused genetic diseases and environmental metal toxicity. Specifically, I work on Wilson disease and Menkes disease. These diseases are caused by the genetic defect of copper transport in the human body. We just finished a structural study of the Wilson disease protein and we identified the domain-domain protein interaction that facilitates copper transport. My other interest is working on therapies for Wilson disease. Currently, all the available therapies have side effects which can be severe or even life threatening. 

Menkes disease is a devastating neurological disorder of genetic origin. It is caused by a defect in the transport of copper, which is required for the activity of many life-sustaining enzymes. Those with Menkes disease have a general life expectancy of three years without treatment; however, with our treatment patients can live much longer. I am proud to say that our treatment, developed here at SickKids, is now the global standard. You can find a record of the discovery at the Discovery List of the University of Toronto, Faculty of Medicine. 

My other area of research is focused on global environmental problems caused by toxic metal contamination and I focus on drinking water. Contamination of underground drinking water by arsenic and other toxic metals in South Asia, particularly Bangladesh and West Bengal, India, has emerged as a public health crisis. For the last 14 years I have been leading an international team of volunteer scientists from Canada, France, Germany, Bangladesh and the U.S. Our multidisciplinary team includes biochemists, hydro-geologists, environment analytical chemists, sociologists, paediatricians, obstetrician/gynaecologists and surgeons. We mapped the entire country of Bangladesh for arsenic and 29 other toxic metals in drinking water and identified hot spots of contamination by toxic metals. Currently we are studying the health effects of contamination on paediatric populations.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
Definitely and without a doubt my favourite scientist is the late Dr. Andrew Sass-Kortsak of SickKids. Dr. Sass-Kortsak met me at a Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology meeting in Chicago where I was giving a lecture. He approached me and invited me to Toronto to give a seminar at SickKids in 1964. In those days, the word clinician-scientist did not exist, but Dr. Sass-Kortsak was exactly that, he was a hepatologist and worked as a clinician-scientist. I was recruited by him and I grew up under his mentorship. I was the first basic scientist recruited at SickKids and Dr. Sass-Kortsak is the one who opened my eyes to medical problems. This was a tremendous thing for me and I learned so much from him. Between the two of us, a basic scientist and a clinician, we started doing translational science and research. I discovered copper-histidine in human blood, learned about its importance in copper transport, and Dr. Sass-Korsak was the first physician to administer it to a severely ill newborn baby with Menkes disease. 

As a token of my gratitude to Dr. Sass-Kortsak I initiated, with the help of others, the Dr. Andrew Sass-Kortsak award which is given to a young scientist in training at a post MD/PhD level at the Research Institute each year. In 2013, we will be celebrating the 25 year anniversary of the award, just in time for the completion of The Research & Learning Tower, a truly wonderful coincidence.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
Scientific progress is a continuous process and it is difficult to pinpoint one particular breakthrough. Nevertheless, the double helix DNA structure proposed by James D. Watson and Francis Crick using the X-ray diffraction data collected by Rosalind Franklin was one of the major breakthroughs that I have seen in my lifetime. The legend goes; Francis Crick and James D. Watson walked into the Eagle Pub in Cambridge during lunch and announced: “We have discovered the secret of life!” and thus began the great coding race. The assignment of three base codons for amino acids by Marshall Nirenberg and Har Gobind Khorana finally completed the genetic code translation. I still remember in those days, as a graduate student, people running in mobs to get close to these researchers and to try and learn more about their discoveries. It was truly a tour-de-force to say the least and I felt their achievement was most exceptional. Any time I produce a recombinant protein, I remember them, and I remember that without their discovery I would never be able to synthesize these proteins. 

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I have many interests and you better believe that keeps me busy. When I was younger I used to hike and climb mountains. When I was a student in California I loved to explore the Sierra Mountains. Recently I have travelled a lot. I love to learn the culture and customs of different countries while meeting different people. I was recently in Japan and experienced a typhoon for the first time. 

My father was a lawyer and a great scholar of English literature and his influence on me led me to love old English literature. When I go to Washington D.C. I visit this old bookstore in DuPont Circle where I discovered a version of Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. 

I also love baroque music, Renaissance-era art and sculpture. The Renaissance period is one of my passions and it was indeed a glorious time. The other interest that I have is wine. I have my cellar and I love to write about wine; this is my great hobby.

6. Why science?
I am just curious. Curiosity leads me to ask questions and pursue science in order to answer them. As an undergraduate I was interested in math and quantum chemistry. I recall working in a biomedical research institute as a summer student and learning about biological processes. I worked under the guidance of a brilliant young scientist named Dr. Babul Dhar [PDF] and I will never forget when Dorothy Hodgkin discovered the X-ray structure of Vitamin B12. When I looked at that structure, I was amazed to see how a molecule functioned biologically, and that was a seminal triggering point in my later pursuit of scientific research.

7. Why SickKids?
When I was invited to give a seminar at SickKids in 1964 by Dr. Andrew Sass-Kortsak I felt something remarkable. I could see that SickKids offered something very special; it was a place where I could do my research in close proximity to patients. Also, Dr. Sass-Kortsak taught me that interdisciplinary collaboration was the way of the future. Even today I feel that I would not have been able to achieve the things that I have if I had been somewhere else. The discovery of Menkes disease treatment is the highest point in my career as a scientist. No awards and no honours can match the satisfaction I feel knowing that a child lives because of the work I did at SickKids. 

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
While we understand the pathogenesis of Wilson disease we do not have therapies that are risk free. All of our current treatments, like D-penicillamine, triethylenetetramine and zinc have adverse side effects. The lack of side effect free treatments motivates me to find an alternate therapy for Wilson disease.

9. What are you reading right now?
I just finished Arthur Miller’s Empire of the Stars and The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking. I have always been interested in astrophysics and my affinity for math and quantum chemistry fuelled this interest. If I had to pick any other career I would have chosen to be an astrophysicist. Arthur Miller’s book is phenomenal and discusses Chandrasekhar’s calculations which provide the first mathematical description of black holes. In The Grand Design Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow pose some really interesting philosophical questions about the beginning of the universe, for instance, why is there something rather than nothing?

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
First and foremost, one needs to have motivation for going into research. Second, you need a very good mentor. In general, you have to choose the project that you want to work on very carefully. There will be many failures and disappointments but you must always stay steadfast. I also think that one has to have good critical writing skills and should be able to express his or her results eloquently.

11. What does the Research & Learning Tower mean to you?
When I came to SickKids, back in 1964, there were only twelve scientists at the Research Institute and we used to see each other all the time to discuss our results and review each other’s grant proposals. SickKids has grown so big that we have been scattered and we don’t communicate or see each other as much as we used to. The Research & Learning Tower will allow us to develop the interdisciplinary nature of our work to the betterment of patients at SickKids and patients worldwide. If we are to continue the reputation for pioneering research, innovation and discoveries at SickKids, then we need this building.

12. Can you tell us a little bit about the International Conference on Metals and Genetics?
Around the time when the Wilson disease gene and Menkes disease treatment came along I began thinking that we were lacking a forum for interdisciplinary participation. So, I started the International Conference on Metals and Genetics in 1994 at SickKids. At that time, there was a great interest in the subject and participation skyrocketed. We had three consecutive conferences in Toronto before moving internationally to Paris in 2008. We just concluded the fifth conference in Japan this year and the turnout was phenomenal. The sixth conference will take place in Spain in 2014 and the organizers requested me to remain as the honourary president of the conference in appreciation for SickKids.

November 2011

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