In 2018 Dr. Buddhadeb “Buddha” Dawn, who hails from India, became chairman of the UNLV School of Medicine’s department of internal medicine. He was formerly with the University of Kansas School of Medicine, where he was the division director of cardiology, and founding director of the Cardiovascular Research Institute and the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center.
Today, Dawn and his research team continue their groundbreaking research in the use of stem cells to treat damaged myocardial cells after a heart attack. He says research into the use of adult stem cells, which have the potential to grow into a variety of heart cell types, has been very promising. Published in peer-reviewed publications on more than 170 occasions and the principal investigator or sub-investigator in 35 clinical trials, Dawn says that numerous patients benefit from adult stem cell therapies.
It turns out that Dawn, who loves photography, isn’t just bold in his research.
A time in your life you were daring
In the summer of 1988, after the final exam at my medical school in India, I went to the Himalayas with my father. We visited the Gangotri glacier, the origin of the river Ganges, at about 15,000 feet. I was not satisfied with the scenery from the bottom of the glacier. To take better pictures of the entire mountain range, I climbed on top of the glacier and spent almost three hours taking photographs. By that time, it was past noon, the sun was beating down, and I could hear the glacier crack under my feet. Boulders from the steep mountain next to the glacier started to roll down. There was no identifiable path down — and not a soul in sight. I was lost — and the possibility that I would be engulfed into those cracks and buried in ice — or be flattened by falling rocks — was real. Fortunately, the shoe I was wearing made rather unique imprints on gravel. Eventually, I could trace the path I took to go up, and literally crawled down to the base. This was a rather close encounter with death, but the pictures were totally worth it.
Why you love taking pictures
I believe my passion for creativity is the real reason behind my love for photography. I enjoy capturing moments and memories and immortalizing time. I was 12 when I first started taking black and white pictures with an Agfa Isoly II. Photographs also enhance my memory and will allow me to cherish specific moments long later in life. I mostly take pictures of nature — mountains, sunsets, for example. The Nikon I use today captures color in the most beautiful way.
Your inspiration to get into medicine
My mother. I did not want to become a doctor. But my maternal grandfather and great grandfather were doctors. My mother wanted me to continue the tradition of caring in our family. However, soon after enrolling in medical school, I realized how precious it was to have the privilege to change people’s lives in a positive way, and to save lives. Almost 40 years later, I wake up inspired every morning — to change things for the better, to build something new, to take care of people. It is a great feeling.
Biggest misconception about your research area
There is a widespread notion that embryonic stem cells can regenerate all tissues and have great potential for therapy. The fact is that if even one injected embryonic stem cell retains the pluripotent behavior, i.e., the ability to make all cell types, the patient will have a tumor called ‘teratoma.’ So, it is not surprising that no clinical trial to date has proven the utility of embryonic stem cells for human therapy. On the other hand, stem and progenitor cells that are harvested from adult tissues and cord have been used successfully in clinical trials for the treatment of numerous diseases in humans. The truth is that adult stem cells are far more effective and safer compared with embryonic stem cells when it comes to the treatment of patients.
Last big project you completed and how you celebrated afterward
Starting basic science research operations within the department of medicine at UNLV was a project equivalent to navigating unchartered waters. It also involved moving my laboratories from the University of Kansas Medical Center. Because our work spans the entire spectrum of cardiovascular research, from molecular/genetic studies to in vivo experimentation in animal models, this project was particularly complex and challenging. We transferred a large number of instruments, including an echocardiography system, microscopes, and equipment for in vivo hemodynamic assessment, to name a few. We also needed to rederive a unique mouse line that expresses a phosphorylation-resistant inhibitory kappaB-alpha in the heart. Our personnel from KU were hired at UNLV. The entire project involved coordination between multiple teams over several months, and UNLV staff were super helpful. In the end, we are very pleased to have functional laboratories that can be used to advance scientific knowledge as well as to identify new treatments for patients. As for celebration, we went out and had pizza!
An early mentor
Going to a village school in a small rural town in India in late 70’s, I truly admired my English teacher, Mr. Khagendranath Samajdar. Over a period of four years, he taught me grammar and syntax, and in particular, how to construct sentences to reflect exactly what I wanted to express. Back then, we used to write on paper typically using an ink pen — and he advised me to write words with complex spellings repeatedly. He used to say that through repeated writing, my fingers would remember the sequence of motion, and I would reflexively spell the word correctly. It was true. And it is also true that this solid foundation in English language, which I could not have achieved without his help, has been one of the major determinants of my success both as a physician and a scientist. I cannot possibly thank him enough.
What you thought you’d do when you grew up
I did want to teach when I grew up. And I wanted to major in a subject that stimulated me intellectually. Physics was my favorite. However, my mother wanted me to become a doctor, and I went to a medical school instead. In retrospect, that actually helped me become a teacher. As a doctor, we have tremendous flexibility to follow our passions — to care for patients, teach the next generation of physicians, and also advance science. So, this career has been a real trifecta for me.