By Greg Basky for SHRF
Leading edge research being done by the University of Regina’s Dr. Mohan Babu is improving our understanding of the role that improperly functioning mitochondria play in diseases like cancer, psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disorder, and neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Often referred to as the powerhouse of cells, mitochondria help convert the energy that humans get from food into energy the body’s cells can use.
Babu – the 2021 recipient of SHRF’s Mid-Career Impact Award – says he’s drawn to the work he does because of the heavy toll conditions such as bipolar disorder and Parkinson’s are exacting worldwide and right here in Saskatchewan. “Bipolar disorder is the sixth leading cause of disability in the world,” says Babu. “In Saskatchewan we have the highest suicide rates, especially in the 10 to 24 age group. Mental health is one of the biggest issues in this province. And we also have a major problem with Parkinson’s disease.”
Advancing the science in fields of quantitative systems biology
Since being appointed assistant professor in the U of R’s department of chemistry and biochemistry in July 2012, Babu has racked up an impressive string of accomplishments. He has cemented his status as a world leader in systems biology, host-pathogen interactions, developmental neuroscience, and mitochondrial biology. He holds the U of R Chancellor’s Research Chair in Network Biology and leads the mitoSYSTEMS Research Centre for Chronic Disease. He’s been awarded a Foundation Grant and New Investigator Award from Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). And he’s published more than 100 peer-reviewed papers in high impact journals, including 10 in Nature, 14 in Cell, and one in Science.
Babu came to the University of Regina because he wanted to work in an environment where he could make a difference. “If I’m in a bigger environment, I’m just one among many. But I thought that if I came here, maybe my research could help build capacity and new knowledge, to develop the next generation of scientists.” At the time, neither the department of biochemistry – nor the provincial research community for that matter – had someone with Babu’s experience and expertise in systems biology.
In addition to advancing the science on mitochondria’s role in disease, Babu and colleagues were first to map all of the membrane proteins in Escherichia coli (E. coli); membrane proteins are an important target in developing drug therapies. The Babu lab is also using machine learning to uncover new drug targets and treatments for conditions such as Bipolar disorder. He is in the process of patenting a compound that effectively targets cancer.
Growing the next generation of researchers
Babu is quick to credit a long list of mentors who’ve supported him throughout his research career to date. And he’s paying that support forward by teaching and mentoring students in his own U of R lab. Over the last nine years, Babu has trained more than 60 people. As an immigrant born and raised in Chennai, India, Babu is especially committed to providing opportunities and mentorship to those Canadians and international students from underrepresented or underserved groups who may not always have the highest marks but are willing to work hard and are passionate about research.
While Babu has high expectations for the people who work for him, he leads by example. “If I publish a paper in Nature today, tomorrow the bar to publish another paper in Nature on a similar research subject is higher still, requiring considerably more effort to beat that mark.” He acknowledges it’s not realistic for them to meet the same standards he sets for himself, but says he’s “...trying to bring that standard into people’s minds. “I really want to challenge every single student in my lab to be at the top.” He proudly points to people who worked in his lab that have gone on to major positions in industry and academia in Canada and abroad.
Track record suggests more breakthroughs to come
Dr. Tanya Dahms, a professor of biochemistry at the U of R, led on Babu’s nomination for the SHRF award – the list of nominators a who’s who of leading scientific minds in Canada and the US. She’s impressed by the speed with which he was able to pivot his work in response to the pandemic: “He’s very fleet in his science.” With funding from CIHR and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI), Babu has used proteomics to develop a saliva test to diagnose COVID and an antiviral aimed at lessening the severity of the disease in people who become sick. “Just think about the significance of these in the context of future pandemics or new diseases,” says Dahms.
Over the next 20 years, Babu wants to do “something big” for the University of Regina, for Saskatchewan, and for the country. He hopes to finish his pioneering work to map key pathways for the genome of E. coli. This would be a major advance because E. coli is a great model for better understanding many of the bacteria responsible for considerable disease and death in humans.
And Babu would like to score another science home run that he could commercialize and bring to market, and that would serve as further evidence that great research is being done at smaller institutions. “So far all our publications are a very wonderful resource tool for them (other researchers) to expand the knowledge from those data we have generated,” says Babu. “But my end goal is to deliver that one magic bullet, if I can.”