By Barbara Smith, '81 BA
Dr. Michael W. Wolowyk is now an internationally respected pharmaceutical scientist and a recent recipient of a prestigious McCalla Professorship in recognition of his work in pharmacology at the University of Alberta, but he admits that his career choice was something of an accident.
He recalls that when he applied to the University of Alberta his choice of a faculty was brought about by a love of chemistry and the lack of a second language. "I hadn't taken French in high school and so admission to chemistry wasn't possible. The pharmacy faculty offered the most chemistry courses without that requirement."
Not a particularly auspicious beginning to a career which has recently earned him a McCalla Professorship from the University for the 1989-90 academic year. The honor is in recognition of Dr. Wolowyk's work with medicinal chemist Ed Knaus and will give the pharmacologist a year away from the classroom so that he can concentrate on his research program.
"I was especially pleased because Dr. McCalla was dean of graduate studies when I started my graduate work," says Dr. Wolowyk. Then with a smile he adds, "I may still do the odd lecture, though. There's a bit of ham in all of us."
Deeming his office in the Dentistry-Pharmacy Centre "too cluttered" to conduct an interview in, the personable scientist opts for the staff lounge one floor below. The choice is a significant one, because here, over coffee, Dr. Wolowyk and his colleague initially discussed the possible benefits of linking their investigations.
By combining Knaus's work with molecules and Wolowyk's interest in the pharmacology of the body's transport systems the pair were able to advance each of their causes. The result is a newly patented drug.
Dr. Wolowyk's enthusiasm is evident as he explains how the compound functions. The drug (code named RK-30) locks on to cells in the veins and arteries and blocks their ability to absorb calcium. With calcium levels in the blood vessels lowered the heart can pump more blood with less effort. At the same time the drug increases the amount of calcium absorbed by the heart muscle and, in doing so, strengthens it.
The research needed to design and develop this drug has been expensive in both time (five years) and money ($300,000). The Canadian Medical Research Council and the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research have both helped by supporting the project with grants.
The dedication that Dr. Wolowyk brought to the project has its source in some statistics that he quotes. He points out that high blood pressure, coronary disease, and congestive heart failure are the most commonplace cardiovascular diseases in people between the ages of 35 and 70, and heart disease accounts for 30 to 40 per cent of all Canadian deaths.
The obvious financial rewards of private industry have never tempted Dr. Wolowyk. "I'm an academic," says the professor who earned both his baccalaureate and doctoral degrees at the University of Alberta, and then spent two years in England as a postdoctoral fellow.
When he returned to Canada, Dr. Wolowyk joined the U of A staff and was promoted to a full professor in 1981. An involved faculty member, he has served on many committees over the years and is also an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Medicine's pharmacology department and a scientific research associate on the medical staff of the University of Alberta Hospitals.
Despite the dedication to science these appointments reflect, Dr. Wolowyk is anything but the stereotypical "dry as dust" scientist. He has wide-ranging interests, including scuba diving, a recreational pursuit he often combines with his scientific interests at Bamfield Marine Station on Vancouver Island.
At the Bamfield biological research station, Dr. Wolowyk investigates the amino acid transport system of the most primitive living vertebrate, the Pacific hagfish (ptatretus stouti) in the hope of obtaining a more explicit and useful knowledge of cell biology.
However, science is not Dr. Wolowyk's only concern at Bamfield. "We won the annual T-shirt design contest," he proclaims proudly. The winning proposal? What else, the hagfish. The contest, it seems, was assured by highly unscientific and even slightly unscrupulous methods. The winning entry was to be selected by popular vote, so Dr. Wolowyk spoke to his friend the station cook. Word spread quickly as to which design was the wisest choice.
"The cook told the students they'd be eating hagfish if they didn't vote for our entry," recalls the scientist, who in more serious moments is also involved in the extraction of active ingredients from anemones at the marine station. From these he hopes to gain further knowledge of cardiac stimulation.
Also involving fish but further afield geographically, Dr. Wolowyk is collaborating with a biochemist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Research has identified certain species of fish with an unusual way of accommodating in order to survive in either fresh or sea water. This is significant, explains Dr. Wolowyk, because cells usually swell in fresh water and shrink in salt water. The process of adaptation by which these fish control the swelling/ shrinking provides a model for a similar process involving mammalian brain cells, says Dr. Wolowvk. And this model, he says, could ultimately be helpful in the control of certain forms of fatal brain swelling (cerebral edema) in humans.
Another of Dr. Wolowyk's scientific interests is the control of the body's amino acids. This, he speculates might point to a way by which cancerous growths could be controlled.
Recently Dr. Wolowyk's interest in calcium took him to a conference in Israel where the participants were dramatically reminded of the importance of this element to life. "It is necessarily present at conception and conversely can cause death," he says.
Calcium builds up in muscles when they are cooled. When tissue is re-warmed the calcium level will adjust so the muscle can work, but there is always some residue. This accumulation can be a time bomb-at some point there will be too much. Because cooling processes are necessary for organ transplants and heart surgery, Dr. Wolowyk is seeking solutions to the calcium overload problem. This has aroused an interest in hibernating animals. They appear to control calcium transport at low temperature, and this might imply a non-drug, natural method of controlling calcium absorption, he says.
A warm and personable man, Dr. Wolowyk is disarmingly modest. When referring to his research he doesn't use "I" or "me" — always "we." After all, he says, there are "a lot of people involved in all of this. It certainly isn't my effort alone."
Married to Norma (Rees) a '65 BSc(Pharm) classmate, the father of two looks forward to the 75th anniversary of his Faculty, even more so because his son will be graduating from pharmacy. "He lived through my lectures!" recounts the professor in mock amazement.
He doubts that his daughter will attempt the same feat. "She will graduate from high school this year and study French abroad for at least a year," he says.
In response to a question asking if it is possible for him to identify a highlight to his "accidental" career, Dr. Wolowyk pauses. "No, really I can't. Each year has been a highlight. The most rewarding aspect of my career has been the people I've been able to meet and work with. Some exceptional people. I've enjoyed that tremendously, and to me that's what life's all about."
Published Autumn 1989.