Sarkar Symposium celebrates a stellar 55-year career in science
There was an outpouring of respect and admiration for Dr. Bibudhendra (Amu) Sarkar at the Sarkar Symposium, which was held on February 20 to celebrate his remarkable 55-year anniversary as a scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids).
In fact he was SickKids’ very first basic scientist, who came here as a young man in his 20s in 1964. But Sarkar is not retiring or even slowing down much – he’s still writing research papers and working every day.
Back in 1964, Sarkar had no plans for a hospital career. At the time he was a PhD biochemist in Los Angeles and was eyeing a postdoctoral fellowship in Europe or elsewhere.
“It wasn’t at all fashionable for a scientist to work in a hospital,” he said. He had no clinical experience but by happenstance at a meeting in Chicago he met Dr. Andrew Sass-Kortsak, a physician and world-renowned expert on Wilson’s disease at SickKids, who invited him to Toronto to give a lecture and soon after offered him a job as a staff scientist in the Genetic Metabolic Research Program.
Reflecting on that pivotal decision, he noted, “It was the children who drew me back to SickKids. I could have stayed in LA but when I saw the children I was affected. They smiled and played even though they were sick. I wanted to help them somehow.”
Working closely with Sass-Kortsak and seeing patients at rounds opened up unexpected new doors for Sarkar. When, in 1976, Sass-Kortsak diagnosed a premature baby with the rare neurodegenerative condition Menkes disease which had no treatment options at the time, he consulted with Sarkar on the case because of Sarkar’s previous research work on copper (Menkes is a disease of copper deficiency).
Sarkar had discovered copper-histidine in human blood in 1966 and subsequent studies showed the importance of copper-histidine in the biological transport of copper. Because copper-histidine cannot be absorbed from the gut, Sarkar proposed that the baby receive it as a subcutaneous injection. After this novel treatment, the baby’s health improved and he began to develop normally. Copper-histidine went on to change the course of treatment for Menkes disease, leading in many cases to longer survival and better outcomes for babies with the condition.
This story of teamwork and discovery has come to represent the beginning of SickKids’ long history of interdisciplinary collaboration between basic scientists and clinicians which carries on today in the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning.
The February 20 symposium brought together scientists of all stripes: clinician-scientists, basic scientists, early career researchers and trainees, and a few long-serving scientists who have earned the esteemed title of Emeritus. Speakers presented on a wide variety of topics as a way of recognizing Sarkar’s impact on their work. Topics included how molecular mechanisms can lead to potential therapeutics; the wonders of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR); the promising fields of metallomics and metalloproteomics; the devastation caused by toxic metals in Southeast Asian drinking water; and the role of microchemistry in the paediatric operating room.
Sarkar was described as a champion of translational medicine and an inspiration whose work has improved the lives of many people around the world.
SickKids President and CEO, Dr. Ronald Cohn, spoke of Sarkar’s significant contributions to science: “This organization’s international reputation as a leading child-health research institute was built, in large part, on the shoulders of Amu Sarkar. New generations of scientists and clinicians have benefited immeasurably from his example.”
Dr. Michael Salter, Chief of Research at SickKids, reminisced about his long-time friend and colleague, saying: “He has tremendous humanity. He understands what it’s like to be a patient and what it’s like to suffer. On a personal note, Amu has always been a great support to me. I will never forget that.”
Speaking to Sarkar about his legacy, he said: “You are a trailblazer. The entire future of research at SickKids has depended on you. You led the way for all of us to do great science and stay humble. You have played a critical role in the history of translational medicine here.”
Salter presented Sarkar with a personalized gift – a heavy, solid block of glass containing an accurate 3D etching of the complex structure of a copper-histidine molecule.
After the symposium, a visibly moved Sarkar said: “This is overwhelming. It makes me feel very humble. Looking back, I know I made the right decision coming to SickKids. I have been very lucky.”