Sushil K Sarna, PhD
Dr. Sushil K. Sarna received his undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering in University of Delhi, India, and his master’s degree and PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. An interest in biology led him to the laboratory of the renowned physiologist, Dr. Edwin E. Daniel, where he began his academic career with a joint appointment in the Departments of Pharmacology and Electrical Engineering. After a brief stint as Professor at McMaster University, he was recruited to the Medical College of Wisconsin as Professor of Surgery and Physiology where he became Director of Digestive Research Center and Chief of Surgical Research Section at the Zablocki VA Medical Center. In 2002, Dr. Sarna was recruited to the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) as the Charlotte Warmoth Professor of Internal Medicine and Professor of Neurosciences and Cell Biology. He passed away in 2017 at age 74 after a short illness.
Dr. Sarna had a productive and innovative research career in the field of gastrointestinal motor and sensory function. His early studies of the smooth muscle and enteric neural regulation of esophageal, gastric, small intestinal and colonic motor functions subsequently led to investigation of motor and sensory dysfunctions in preclinical models of Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. Because his unique background and knowledge of electrical circuits, it is no surprise that his early important work in animals focused on the nature of the slow wave electrical activity of the stomach and intestine. His work contributed significantly to our understanding of the mechanisms and electrical basis of migrating motor complex and giant migrating contractions.
In mid-career, Dr. Sarna’s research at the organ, cellular and molecular levels expanded to inflammation. Seminal publications identified the motor disturbances in inflamed small intestinal and colon that were the basis of diarrheas-producing mass propulsions. He defined how changes in signaling in smooth muscle cells suppressed the phasic contractions, while stimulating the giant migrating contractions, together causing urgency and frequent uncontrolled defecation. His laboratory elucidated the molecular processes behind the alterations of key molecules such as G-proteins, Ca2+ channels, and PKC that are fundamental to the smooth muscle dysfunction in inflammation.
In his later career, Dr. Sarna made significant advances in two contemporary areas of the neurogastroenterology: the role of adverse early life experiences in inducing visceral hypersensitivity and smooth muscle dysfunction, and the role of epigenetics in fetal and neonatal programming of gut dysfunction. In animal models, he demonstrated that chronic stress during mid to late pregnancy alters primary and secondary visceral nociceptive neurons in the colonic smooth muscle of the offspring, which manifested as gender-specific visceral and motor dysfunctions in the adult. He also documented that increased sympathetic activity contributed to chronic stress-induced visceral hypersensitivity. These studies identified epigenetic modulations of specific target genes and introduced the potential for histone acetyltransferases and histone deacetylase inhibitors in reversing these changes.
Dr. Sarna received many awards, including the Jansen Award in Gastroenterology for Outstanding Basic Science Research in 1996 and a Senior Medical Career Scientist Award for the Veterans Administration 1984-2001. He published over 240 peer reviewed manuscripts and reviews. He served on the Editorial Boards of several prestigious gastrointestinal journals, including Gastroenterology and the American Journal of Physiology (Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology) and was one of the founding editors for our journal Neurogastroenterology and Motility (formerly Journal of Gastrointestinal Motility). He was a member of several GI societies and an officer in the American Motility Society, the International Motility Society and the International Society for the Study of Neurogastroenterology and Motility.
Dr. Sarna was a dedicated and indefatigable mentor who was instrumental in the careers of several young scientists. Those in his lab received rigorous training in experimental design, data analyses, manuscript and grant writing. His capacity to keep his science current with passing time allowed a strong commitment to the advancement of our field through the continuous production of high quality experimental data and publications.