PROFESSOR EMERITUS WERNER KALOW returned to Berlin after the
Second World War he had job offers from both the department of pathology
and the department of pharmacology at his university. Though he
was fascinated by both disciplines, his decision to choose pharmacology
arose from extraordinary circumstances — the pharmacology
department, which had been bombed, was temporarily housed in the
American-occupied part of Berlin, while the pathology department
remained in the Russian-occupied area of the city.
Almost 60 years
later, Kalow is a world-renowned researcher in the field he chose
by happenstance, known for bringing pharmacology and genetics together
into a subspecialty called pharmacogenetics.
Very early in
his career Kalow became involved in a study investigating why some
patients who receive a normally safe local anesthetic drug experience
fatal side effects. Ultimately he found that some people have a
genetic defect that causes variability in the activity of a blood
enzyme called cholinesterase, which makes the drug deadly for them
while for everyone else it is entirely benign. Spurred on by this
knowledge, he dedicated his research to a relatively unexplored
area of pharmacology — the study of how genetic variations
affect drug metabolism and drug safety.
in Philadelphia after leaving Germany and during those years he
met Professor Ken Ferguson, then chair of U of T’s Department
of Pharmacology, at a scientific meeting. Ferguson invited him to
visit the university in 1951 and later offered him a permanent position.
Other than a brief stint in industry, Kalow has been at U of T ever
since, serving as chair from 1966 to 1977 and formally retiring
in 1982 though he is still very active in the department.
initially examined the differences in drug metabolism among individuals
but a discovery in 1982 expanded his focus to differences among
whole populations. During a study that tested how a group of student
volunteers metabolized a sedative drug he noticed a striking variation
in some students’ results. “I thought it was a mistake,”
he recalls, “until I realized all of the affected students
were Chinese.” This discovery led him to publish the first
investigations of interethnic differences in drug metabolism.
Kalow has developed a test, now in worldwide use, that uses caffeine
metabolism as an indicator of enzyme activity that affects people’s
ability to safely take certain drugs. Another ongoing project, one
he says he is personally proud of, has eliminated the need for studies
using twins to determine how much genetics contribute to variations
in drug metabolism.
In 2001, his
achievements were honoured when he received the prestigious Killam
Prize, a $100,000 award that recognizes outstanding lifetime research
contributions in the natural sciences, health sciences and engineering.
At 85, Kalow
still makes it to his office almost every day, and will use the
Killam Prize money to continue his research. “I’ve worked
for 20 years on pension, so I’m very happy to get a little
bit of extra money,” he says.
to the Killam, Kalow has received numerous honours for his research
achievements including the Canadian Society of Anesthetists’
Research Recognition Award, the American Society for Clinical Pharmacology
and Therapeutics’ Oscar B. Hunter Memorial Award in Therapeutics
and the Drug Information Association’s Distinguished Career
Award. In 1995 the Werner Kalow Lectureship was established at U
of T in honour of his contributions to pharmacogenetics and drug
1962 book, Pharmacogenetics, represented the first systematic
study of the emerging subspecialty, heightening its profile and
making Kalow a recognized expert in the field. Since then, he has
published more than 300 scientific papers and several other books.
And while he is one of the most highly cited authors in his field,
Kalow is modest about his achievements. “I had some new ideas.”
chair of pharmacology at U of T and director of the university’s
Institute for Drug Research, is quick to laud Kalow’s leadership
role. “Werner Kalow is one of the true ‘fathers of pharmacogenetics.’
He has seen the specialty grow from a niche area of scientific research
into one of the hottest research fields from the perspectives of
both drug development and commercialized genomics.”
served as main editor of Pharmacogenomics, released in May
2001. The subject of this last book is Kalow’s current interest.
Knowledge of the human genome, he argues, has transformed the field
of pharmacogenetics and will ultimately allow researchers to design
drugs that are tailor-made for people’s unique genetic code.
for individualized medicine and individualized drug choice based
on a patient’s genes. So of course we can apply that to abnormal
drug effects or to the choice of a drug, which will be most efficient
for that patient,” he says. “While pharmacogenetics
was most concerned with drug safety, the future will be more concerned
with drug efficacy.”
Kalow says he
is excited about the new avenues of pharmacological inquiry opened
up by genome studies and plans to continue his research as long
as he is able. And while he’s officially been retired for
20 years, he says he doesn’t have much time for hobbies. “My
work is my hobby!”