Bundle, Dr. David

2007 Winner: Outstanding Leadership In Alberta Science

The Career Of Influential Chemistry Researcher That Almost Wasn’t

Meet Dr. David Bundle. Born in London in 1946, he was never particularly academically inclined as a young boy. Back then in England, 11-year-old children took an aptitude test called the “11-plus exam.” This exam assessed kids’ abilities and propelled them into either the vocational stream or an academic career. David failed the exam and was consigned to the vocational stream with the most likely outcome that he pursue a trade. When he moved to Cheshire, nothing changed and his academic results kept him in the vocational section. No, for young David, the third time really was the charm.

The Turning Point

Finally, at age 15, he transferred to an academic institution but was held back a year to make up for having spent four years in the vocational stream. His revenge took the form of embarrassing the school in question by sharing first place in its annual fourth years’ math competition. Then came one of those pivotal moments that so often change a child’s destiny: he came under the influence of a “fantastic” chemistry teacher, who convinced him that therein lay his future. This led eventually to an undergraduate degree from the University of Nottingham and a PhD at Newcastle.

When asked what it was that made him excel in this demanding field, he replies, “Success in science comes from intellectual curiosity stimulated by something specific, coupled with the tenacity to see a project through despite being presented with constant hurdles.”  Dr. Bundle continues, “I’m a bit like a dog with a bone—I don’t like to let go until all the marrow’s gone.”

After completing his doctorate, the recently-minted Dr. Bundle accepted a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Research Council in Ottawa, working on vaccines for meningitis. This was an exciting period for him, as he was part of a team that used a new physical technique, Carbon 13 NMR, to determine the structure of polysaccharides. In effect, they found that bacteria coat themselves in polysaccharides that could be peeled off—much like a skin—made immunogenic, and then used as the basis for vaccines. Though that work has progressed considerably since the early 1970s, this process is still the basis for bacterial vaccines.

Exciting Opportunity

In 1973, David found himself looking for a job in a very difficult climate. Nothing was available in Europe, so he readily accepted an invitation from legendary University of Alberta chemist, Dr. Raymond Lemieux, who was engaged in immunochemistry research. Dr. Bundle’s early work at the U of A focused on chemical synthesis of human blood group antigens. He and his colleagues developed ways to take a synthetic structure and link it to a protein, a prerequisite if one wants to render a carbohydrate immunogenic.

The work was so far ahead of existing efforts that it formed the basis of research undertaken over the following 25 years, and was featured in a series of papers published in the esteemed Journal of the American Chemical Society. It was also at the heart of patents that led to the creation of a company called Chem BioMed, which ultimately failed because a synthetic form of Factor 10, used to treat haemophiliacs, was developed, trumping the need for the product created by Dr. Bundle and his colleagues. However, the technology itself is still applicable to the area of transplants, particularly those that require crossing an infant’s A-B-O blood barrier. David is hopeful that the work will continue and one day bear fruit.

A Profound Discovery

Since then, his carbohydrate research has taken different directions. In February 2000, he and his team were published in the prestigious Nature, a magazine notorious for the rigour of its acceptance standards. The piece in question focused on the discovery of the Starfish molecule, a carbohydrate structure that is a million times more active than anything previously found. What is particularly noteworthy about Starfish is its ability to block the entry of E. coli toxin into cells. It and related bacterial toxins such as the one from cholera are potentially deadly to humans. Starfish has the ability to bond more strongly with the toxins in question than to the sugar molecules on the cell surface to which the toxin binds.

The U of A researchers have refined this invention and are about to announce a new, more effect, less expensive molecule that is expected to lead to the development of a drug that successfully fights E. coli. Dr. Bundle chuckles as he remembers responding to the suggestion from his post-doctoral fellow, Dr. Pavel Kitov, that they consider the original Starfish research. “Don’t bother. It won’t work.” Good thing Dr. Kitov shares his professor’s pit bull-like determination and refusal to give up.

David is justifiably proud of his career but feels that his real success has come from his sons, Matthew, a professor of Biomechanics at the University of Wyoming, and Benjamin, a senior trademark examiner with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office. A man of many interests, he enjoys photography, particularly when hiking in the Rockies. He’s also an avid gardener who loves music—nothing too sweet, despite his research into sugars—and listens to everything from Classical to Dylan to The Who and Motown. Though, of course, as part of England’s post-war generation, he loves the Rolling Stones. More than anything, however, his passion is his research. And for that we must be grateful when we consider the extraordinary potential Dr. David Bundle’s work has to impact us.