Dr. Weeks’ Comment: a brilliant scientist and researcher, he was one of the fellows I always looked forward to catching up with at annual conferences. We both have focused on burn treatments and Brian was full of fascinating knowledge. He never mentioned that he was once thrown out of McGill. I know there was a great story there! Bravo to Brian! We are all the poorer for his passing.
Brilliant biochemist was an authority on the immunology of burn injury
Eccentric researcher, who got thrown out of McGill, was also a cancer expert and an early convert to orthomolecular medicine
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 26, 2012
Brian Sparkes was, by all accounts, a brilliant and driven scientist with a quirky, even eccentric bent, who got thrown out of McGill University in Montreal possibly for being too clever, and an acclaimed expert on cancer and the immunology of burn victims who himself succumbed to cancer.
Not shy about proclaiming his vast and sometimes superior expertise in biochemistry to touchy colleagues (while reciting the poetry of Dylan Thomas to no one in particular), Sparkes did pioneering research on the role of immune failure in burn injury, first in Ottawa and later with Swiss scientists at the University of Basel.
His interest in cancer research began in graduate school, when his and a colleague’s work at the Department of Health and Welfare in Ottawa led to the first isolation of a naturally occurring bacterial growth inhibitor, in 1968. The discovery resonated around the world, as finding inhibitors of bacterial growth had been a goal of the medical profession for centuries, but looking for them in human cells had rarely been considered.
Awarded a National Cancer Institute fellowship to study at McGill, Sparkes faced almost immediate animus there, partly over a paper he and a colleague had written on their growth inhibitor work that appeared in the prestigious journal Science while Sparkes was still in his 20s.
“It hit like a bombshell and obviously compounded his troubles with the jealousy factor,” recalled Karl Raab, then a McGill post-doctoral fellow in molecular biology who befriended the younger upstart. “Most scientists spend their entire careers hoping to have something published in Science.”
Despite differences in their ages and stations, Raab soon sensed that Sparkes had a profound understanding of biochemistry and the broader biomedical field. “I quickly learned more from him about cancer, a completely new field to me, than from the entire faculty during that first year,” he said. But Sparkes was “an unusual maverick, a little bit of a loner. He didn’t mind demonstrating his superior knowledge in a lot of fields, and he made a lot of enemies on the faculty.”
He was told he had an attitude problem and that he did not fit in. After he was failed in a senior seminar, he was dispatched to the university psychiatrist. Professors advised that if the psychiatrist found he had a mental problem, he could stay. But if found normal, he was gone.
“I’m not making this up,” Raab said with a chuckle.
Sparkes was declared fine – and out he went.
“It was a very messy affair largely based upon the intense dislike and narrow-minded view of several faculty members for Brian’s obvious superiority and his sometimes controversial views,” Raab noted. “But he wasn’t terribly worried. People were waiting for him at the University of Ottawa,” where Sparkes completed his PhD. Sparkes’s nephew sees the episode another way.
“His job was to ask for funding,” said David Sparkes. “He would reply, ‘Why do we need money for this research? We already know the answer to this question.’ ”
To his uncle, cancer research “was big business and there was no mandate to actually cure … [it was] a business with research funded and lobbied by drug companies. And that, in a nutshell, is why Brian was excommunicated” at McGill.
“He was my favourite uncle,” David Sparkes went on. “He’d slip me a $100 bill and tell me not to tell my dad. He was a happening bachelor, a good-looking guy who drove an Austin-Healey. At one time, he had two baby grand pianos in his living room, each tuned slightly differently.”
Brian Groves Sparkes was born on Nov. 4, 1941, in Newport, South Wales, to Robert Sparkes, a carpenter who had built railroads in India during the Second World War, and Phyllis Clapp, a piano teacher. The clan settled in London, Ont., when Brian was 10. He obtained bachelors and masters degrees at the University of Western Ontario.
Sparkes’s groundbreaking paper in Science, which described how cultured human cells contain a factor that inhibit the growth of certain pathogenic bacterial strains (and retard the growth of more virulent strains), caught the attention of Albert Szent-GyÃ¶rgyi, the Hungarian biochemist who had won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of vitamin C. Szent-GyÃ¶rgyi himself had predicted that such a substance might exist in nature, and he invited Sparkes to his laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., to discuss it.
Following his doctorate, Sparkes landed at the Defence and Civil Institute of Environmental Medicine in Ottawa (now Defence Research and Development Canada), where he co-invented a burn dressing material that blended gelatin and chitosan, a substance that originates in the exoskeletons of shellfish. It received a U.S. patent, which noted its domestic, industrial and military applications. Sparkes went on to earn an international reputation as an authority on the immunology of burn injury. For years, he addressed conferences around the world on the results of his laboratory work and that of his colleagues in Switzerland.
According to Raab, Sparkes had isolated a toxin from burned skin and had “proven” that it was responsible for massive immune system failure in burn victims, who were highly susceptible to infections. “This was a radical idea, which met considerable resistance from the burn research establishment,” Raab noted, “but after years of lectures and numerous publications, his immunological explanation became accepted.”
Sparkes even won over the doctor who has been called the father of modern burn care, Basil Pruitt of Texas, who once bluntly exclaimed at a conference that he did not believe Sparkes’s conclusions. Informed of Sparkes’s death, Pruitt wrote a colleague to say that he had followed Sparkes’s work “with interest” and that his work “will extend his influence into future years.”
However, one promising application – briefly bathing a burn victim in a cerium nitrate solution to remove the toxin – may never become available. A large clinical trial Sparkes had been administering was terminated in 2008 when Swiss funding ceased.
For his work on burn injury, Sparkes received the 1994 Ambroise ParÃ© Award in Augsburg, Germany, named for a 16th-century French battlefield surgeon. Sparkes was an early convert to orthomolecular medicine, which seeks to restore the body’s optimum environment by correcting imbalances or deficiencies based on individual biochemistry and using substances natural to the body, such as vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and trace elements. In his later years, he provided friends with advice on diet and nutrition relating to specific health problems.
“He would research their condition and provide them with a detailed discussion of the biochemical and physiological processes that were failing,” said Brian Schaefer, an experimental psychologist who met Sparkes at an orthomolecular conference in 2006. “He liked to refer to it as a consulting practice. He wasn’t practising medicine, but discussing research.”
His work trying to help those with cancer increasingly consumed him during his last few years, as more and more friends and acquaintances beat a path to his door. He turned no one away. A “big fan” of vitamin C, niacin and probiotics (and an early warner of the dangers of trans fats), Sparkes saw “excellent outcomes” with people with cancer and autoimmune disorders, Schafer said. “And if he was stumped on something, he would research it for weeks on end.”
Sparkes was also an adviser to the Victoria, B.C.-based Harold Foster Foundation, which educates about geomedicine, a discipline that examines the influence of climatic and environmental conditions on health.
As for the aggressive lymphoma that killed Sparkes in Toronto on Dec. 18 at the age of 70, “there’s a lot of people who are so busy treating others, they neglect themselves,” said Steven Carter, director of the Toronto-based International Society for Orthomolecular Medicine. “This is supposition, [but] he just chose to not pay attention to the seriousness of his condition.”
Sparkes leaves a brother, Rev. Robert Sparkes. A memorial service will take place March 3 at McLean House in Toronto (2075 Bayview Ave.) from 1 to 3 p.m.