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The Chemistry of Bioconjugates - An interview with Rajesh Sunasee

“Chemistry is a booming field of new discoveries. New chemicals are being discovered or engineered to meet the needs of the medical and pharmaceutical industries”, says Rajesh Sunasee, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Cape Breton University. This comes as a bit of a surprise to me. I had guessed that chemistry arrived at the summit of its development with the advent of the Periodic Table.

“I am both a passionate teacher and a researcher”, explains Sunasee, who is spending at least part of his time in Cape Breton writing a definitive description of the chemistry of bioconjugates.

The book is called, Chemistry of Bioconjugates: Synthesis, Characterization, and Biomedical Applications, edited by Ravin Narain. It will be a teaching and reference book for chemists, biologists, and engineers.

“Bioconjugation happens when you combine two biological molecules to create a new hybrid molecule that has desirable properties.” says Sunasee. “As part of my current research at CBU, I am trying to get polymer nano-materials to bind with DNA for gene delivery applications.”

Sunasee likens the work of his hybrid molecules to a taxi. The passengers are the medicines that will be delivered to specific cells where they are needed. The taxi molecule surrounds the medicine-molecule ‘payload’ to protect it until it arrives at its specific destination.

When the hybrid-molecule taxi does arrive at the target cell, specific levels of pH and temperature signal the taxi to discharge its passenger. And this is, perhaps, where the taxi analogy starts to run out of gas. These hybrid-molecule taxis are only good for one ride. Once they have discharged their passenger, they are sent to the scrap heap.

Sunasee says this is not as wasteful as it seems. “Your bloodstream would become toxically gridlocked with empty taxis, so the hybrid molecules now need to self-destruct into harmless components that can be excreted from your body.”

Sunasee grew up in Mauritius, a tropical paradise island in the Indian Ocean, and former home of the fabled Dodo bird.

“Mauritius is a lot like Canada”, says Sunasee. “It’s a stable, friendly, prosperous, multi-cultural society where everyone participates in the cultural and religious celebrations of everyone else. But Mauritius is too small to have the industrial base required to support the kind of research I do.”

By Peter Ross

Rajesh Sunasee has been a guest at Esplanade Executive Suites during his stay in Cape Breton.

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