By MARIA IQBAL
Thursday, July 18, 2019
The internationally renowned scientist Mladen Vranic possessed a certain quality that helped him make great strides in diabetes research: He kept probing until he got answers.
His widow says his powerful resolve dated back to his childhood, when he narrowly survived the Holocaust with his family.
Originally from Croatia, he fled with his parents and grandmother to Italy during the Second World War because of their Jewish heritage. But the Nazis followed close behind and arrived in the same part of Italy where the family had taken refuge. When the Vranic family fled, they ended up detained in a camp.
Despite the poor conditions there, young Mladen still went to school and played sports.
"I took classes in Latin," Dr. Vranic told a graduating class at the University of Toronto in 2011, while accepting an honorary degree. "My teacher, in despair, told me that I might be better suited to milking the cows."
When the Nazi threat grew, Dr. Vranic's family received word about a rescue boat and waited on a pier for it to arrive. They were fortunate to make it aboard and escape to safety. A few weeks later, Nazis entered the Italian camp and sent everyone inside to Auschwitz. Only two of the camp's inhabitants survived.
Dr. Vranic was lucky to escape and would carry the experience with him wherever he went.
"The experiences of coming so many times to almost be captured, of losing all their properties and art made him just be a fighter," said Linda Vranic, his widow. "He would not give up on anything."
Dr. Vranic would make the most of the remaining years in his life, going on to become a distinguished diabetes researcher at the University of Toronto with numerous accolades in Canada and abroad.
He died on June 18 in Toronto of congestive heart failure at the age of 89.
Dr. Vranic was the last postdoctoral fellow to work with Charles Best - the scientist who co-discovered insulin. Dr. Vranic studied how exercise affected diabetes, and he changed the prevailing thinking in the scientific community when he found that the hormone glucagon can be produced outside of the pancreas, in the stomach. The discovery helped determine the role of glucagon in diabetes.
"He could be relentless in sticking with an issue that he was interested in and wanted to accomplish," said John Dirks, former dean of the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto. "He was very focused and he wouldn't let go, but all for good reason." Dr. Vranic was born on April 3, 1930, in Zagreb, the only child of Vladimir and Ana Vranic. His father taught mathematics at the University of Zagreb, but couldn't get an academic appointment because of his Jewish background.
After the Second World War, his father returned to the University of Zagreb as a professor and dean. Vladimir brought the first computer to the university despite the views of his colleagues that "computers represented a prostitution of pure mathematics," Dr. Vranic wrote in a career retrospective in 2010. "I have tried to apply the same tenacity to my own research endeavors."
After finishing medical school at the University of Zagreb, Dr. Vranic pursued graduate studies in physiology, where diabetes was the only research topic in the department at the time. Coincidentally, his father developed Type 2 diabetes at the same time.
After finishing his PhD in 1962, Dr. Vranic reached out to the University of Toronto for an opportunity to work with Dr. Best, who was then head of the university's Banting and Best Department of Medical Research. Dr. Vranic's thesis was published in the journal, Diabetes, and Dr. Best was pleased with his work. He invited Dr. Vranic to work with him as a postdoctoral fellow.
Dr. Vranic began developing a new way to measure the production of glucose in the liver separately from glucose utilization in the muscles. Researchers used his method for years, eventually leading them to determine the roles of insulin and glucagon in the body.
Under a different teacher, Dr. Vranic tested the impact of exercise on diabetes, determining when exercise is beneficial and when it's not. This led him to organize the first symposium on the subject in California, where participants were engaged in discussions until well into the night. This work would eventually bring researchers to a major eureka moment when they found exercise can actually prevent Type 2 diabetes.
As a testament to his contribution to diabetes research, in 1991, the American Diabetes Association recognized Dr. Vranic with the prestigious Banting Medal, which is awarded to one researcher in the world each year whose work has advanced the understanding of diabetes.
The same year, Dr. Vranic was appointed chair of the department of physiology at the University of Toronto. Dr. Vranic had recently recovered from a stroke. "I was a little concerned as to whether he was able to do the job," said Dr. Dirks, who appointed Dr. Vranic. "He assured me that he would be fine. And he was."
He received an honorary degree from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden in 1992.
In 2005, he received the Albert Renold Award from the American Diabetes Association for his work training diabetes researchers. He also received the Canadian Diabetes Association's inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007 and was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame two years later. In 2010, he was appointed to the Order of Ontario and named an officer of the Order of Canada.
Despite his numerous awards, Dr. Vranic would think about recognizing others instead of himself.
"He would often like to discuss with me who we should nominate for awards in the community," said Daniel Drucker, who worked alongside Dr. Vranic in the department of physiology at U of T. "Many of us are always thinking about how we can nominate ourselves for awards."
His students remember the scientist as someone who was calm and capable of diffusing tension.
"Sometimes the lab got totally chaotic," said Patricia Brubaker, a former postdoctoral fellow working under Dr. Vranic, noting that his lab had students from all parts of the world and diverse personalities. "I never saw him angry ever."
If there was a conflict, "he would go into his office and close the door, and just have a discussion," continued Dr. Brubaker, who is now a professor in U of T's departments of physiology and medicine. "It was always very calm and measured and personable rather than confrontational."
And he was as curious about people as he was about science.
"When visiting scientists would come, he would bring them into his office and he would speak to them about what their backgrounds were, and how they got involved in science," Dr. Brubaker added. "He would try to understand the whole person."
Dr. Vranic wouldn't retire until his 80s and, in 2015, helped co-found a company researching a cure for hypoglycemia.
He leaves his widow, Linda; their daughters, Claire and Anne; Iva, his daughter from his first marriage; and a grandson.
About a month before he died, he published an autobiography, titled Between Scylla and Charybdis: A Life Retrospective.
Although his physical movement was limited in his final months, his wife took him to the opera about a month before he died.
In his career retrospective about his work over the previous 50 years, Dr. Vranic quoted Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken: "A scientist is always facing choices ... focusing on specific areas of research, selecting students, fellows, and collaborators.
"The [road] 'less travelled' offers the opportunity of originality, which in my opinion is the key goal in all aspects of arts and science."
Mladen Vranic, a Croatian Holocaust survivor and groundbreaking medical researcher, is seen in his office at the University of Toronto in 2009. Colleagues and former students describe Dr. Vranic as a patient, generous man who often sought to elevate the achievements of others.
KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL