Volume 12, Number 6 November 5, 2004

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Surgery grad bridges gap between research & practice

By David Hutton

PhD graduate Adebola Obayan

PhD graduate Adebola Obayan.

Photo by David Hutton

Far from the tropical climate of his native Nigeria, huddled in intense research work at the U of S, Dr. Adebola Obayan, the surgery department’s first doctoral graduate since the 1970s, has one purpose in mind.

He wants to bridge the gap between basic science and clinical practice.

“Basic scientists are like ants, always working, and clinicians are like grasshoppers, always wanting to take flight and make big leaps. A gap has been created and science is 10, 15, or even up to 20 years ahead of clinical practice. What science needs are intermediaries who can speak the language of both the ants and the grasshoppers,” says Obayan.

To help close this gap, Obayan has invested his time in such intermediary work, researching basic science on the one hand, but also ensuring that his work has direct and immediate clinical applications.

Recently, Obayan applied this philosophy to oxidative stress, the harmful condition that occurs when there is an excess of free radicals (molecules with unpaired electrons) and a decrease in anti-oxidant levels in the body. The condition is usually associated with trauma and premature aging and it has been cited as a performance-limiting factor in physical activity. Preventing or reducing oxidative stress, notes Obayan, may result in a healthier population.

The need for research in this area became clear to Obayan during his tenure in Australia: “I saw a lot of burns patients with high metabolic rates and in the midst of this research the whole idea of studying oxidative stress evolved. Then I moved over to the neurosurgical unit and found similar problems in the patients. I thought, wow, this must be worth looking into; how does the body modulate and manipulate levels of oxidative stress?”

However, Obayan was not able to investigate his findings and apply his ‘bridging the gap’ credo to oxidative stress until he made the move to the U of S.

“When I came here to teach anatomy I began talking to the head of surgery,” says Obayan, “I wrote a proposal and they were willing to accommodate my research into their program. I also discussed it with the present head of Anatomy who was also interested in providing the basic science support.”

Once the research project got underway, Obayan’s focus was not specifically on the scientific side of oxidative stress, but on the clinical testing problems to which he hoped to find scientific answers. The only way of measuring the level of oxidative stress in the past, notes Obayan, was through using complex analytical equipment and procedures, an awkward process for clinicians who need immediate results.

Obayan’s solution: a novel urine screening technique that provides a non-invasive means for rapid measurement of overall oxidative stress. It’s a method Obayan hopes will lead to the “first widespread clinically useful test for oxistress,” and provide a surplus of real applications.

“If someone is brought into the hospital, maybe found lying in the bush somewhere, and they want to know whether he has oxidative stress or not, the test allows you to treat and diagnose the patient on admission – rather than the current approach of simply treating the complications as they arise.”

The application of the technology will not only affect clinical practice, Obayan notes, but will also have a significant influence in the world of sport: “We know exercise produces free radicals, so people who are involved with athletics or long distance running can monitor their antioxidant levels through ‘home tests’. They will be able to tell whether the antioxidant medication they are taking is effective or not.”

The oxidative stress test will also aid in patient diagnosis and can be an indication of the need for therapeutic intervention in areas such as Alzheimer’s, where oxidative stress is being shown to play a significant role.

“Since oxidative stress plays a role in Alzheimer’s, if people find early signs of the disease – say they are often forgetting things, or if they have a family history of Alzheimer’s – they can be tested early to see if they need to start taking anti-oxidant medication.”

The oxidative stress test by Obayan received a full U.S. patent in April 2004. In 2001, Assay Designs Inc. of Ann Arbor, Michigan bought the exclusive rights to the test but dropped the rights a year later.

Though Obayan received his PhD in October, he still plans to keep searching for clinical applications for his research. Last year, he won a Royal University Hospital Foundation grant to research adhesions and is now looking into finding a new way of preventing and maybe treating them.

However, he says the emphasis of his work will remain “bridging the gap.”

David Hutton writes graduate student profiles for the U of S College of Graduate Studies & Research.

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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