Dr. Chris Siow:
Tasting Research Success
Healthy people, healthy economy
“The first thing I ask my students is ‘are you a good cook?’,” says Dr. Chris Siow, Principal Investigator with the Innovative Therapy Research Laboratory at St. Boniface’s Canadian Centre for Agri-food Research in Health and Medicine (CCARM). Cooking as a metaphor for research is an idea he learned from his mentor Dr. Krishnamurti Dakshinamurti, now Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Medicine.
“To cook a nice meal, you really have to know what to add, the right amount to add, and the amount of time to cook it. It’s just like doing an experiment,” says Siow. “In the lab you have to add the right reagents (ingredients) in the right concentrations, and then it’s trial and error until you get it right.” The process takes patience, focus, and, above all “you really have to love the science,” says Siow.
The study of food
For Siow, cooking and food are actually more than metaphors for research. They are his research. His highest profile work focuses on lingonberries and Chinese herbal medicines. The research largely focuses on the “human kinome.” Siow describes the human genome as our “genetic bank.” The kinome is a subset of the genome made up of protein kinase genes.
In simpler terms, when these kinase genes aren’t functioning properly because particular enzymes have been activated, disease can occur. Siow and his colleagues are trying to understand how certain foods can prevent the activation of these enzymes, prevent cell death, “and, in turn, protect the heart”, and other organs in our body.
“You really have to love the science.”
Siow’s current work with lingonberries is especially exciting. The lingonberry, a cousin of the cranberry, is typically grown in cooler, northern climates (which explains its status as a staple in Swedish retailer Ikea’s grocery department). They are common in Manitoba’s boreal forests and some of the research suggests that the farther north the berry is grown, the stronger its disease-fighting properties.
The berry work began in 2009 as a collaboration with a research centre in Newfoundland that was looking at lingonberries (known as partridgeberries in Newfoundland).
“I had never even heard of lingonberries,” says Siow. “I had heard of cranberries. I have them with my turkey!”
Economic impacts – Canada’s North
Siow describes those early results as “very exciting” and the work has continued since then. Siow and his team are learning that lingonberries have remarkable antioxidant properties and can prevent cell damage. First Nations people have harvested and eaten the berry for generations and have appreciated its benefits for human health. As a scientist, Siow is eager to understand why lingonberries are so beneficial. As a Manitoban, he’s eager to tell the world, recognizing that increased global interest in lingonberries would be good for the provincial economy, especially in the north.
What also helps the economy, says Siow, is more people being in good health by eating the right foods in the right quantities. “Eating the right kind of food and eating in moderation can prevent disease. When people are healthy, that benefits the economy.”
Siow is proud of the role he and his colleagues play in building a healthier society, and proud about the performance of CCARM, a partnership among St. Boniface Hospital, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and the University of Manitoba. “We get the most out of the dollars we receive from donors and from taxpayers.”
From Malaysia, to NYC, to Winnipeg
One glance at Siow’s resume and you can tell that he loves science. He came to Canada as a teenager from Malaysia, in pursuit of a university education. He got his first degree at the University of Regina and then entered the PhD program at the University of Manitoba. He then did a post-doctoral program in neuroscience at The Rockefeller University in New York where “they think that you’re weird if you hold the door open for someone or obey traffic signals.” Siow says that he and his colleagues “played hard and worked hard” in the Big Apple, despite working in a crowded 50-person lab that was open around the clock. After New York, where he worked under Nobel laureate Paul Greengard, it was off to the University of British Columbia, then the University of Hong Kong where he had a huge teaching load on top of his research.
Returning to Winnipeg after Hong Kong was an easy decision for Siow. It’s a good place to raise a family, the air quality is far superior to Hong Kong, and, says Siow, “it’s good to come back and contribute to the community that provided some of my education.”
To learn more about Dr. Siow’s research visit www.sbrc.ca/siow
Dr. Chris Siow
Principal Investigator, Innovative Therapy Research
Canadian Centre for Agri-Food Research in Health and Medicine, St. Boniface Hospital Research
Adjunct Professor of Physiology, University of Manitoba