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Free radical scientist Marcus Cooke uses novel approaches to search for medical cures

Free radical scientist Marcus Cooke uses novel approaches to search for medical cures

December 22, 2014 at 12:00am

By Eric Barton

Marcus Cooke grew up in Peterborough, England, and in secondary school he found himself friends with an argumentative lot of blokes. They were sharp, downright pedantic, and anything anybody said would immediately turn into a debate.

Their fights weren’t about sports or girls, really. One kid, his specialty was languages. Another could debate history all day. And Marcus, he got into science.

“It made you good at backing up what you say, because whatever was said, you had to prove it,” Cooke recalls.

Considering that background in proof and argument, maybe it makes sense where you can find Cooke today. He’s become one of the world’s foremost experts on free radicals and oxidative stress. The new chair of FIU’s Department of Environmental & Occupational Health, Cooke arrived over the summer from the University of Leicester in England.

If all goes well, he might one day help cure cancer. And Alzheimer’s. And find a way to stop aging.

To be fair, Cooke doesn’t say those kind of things very often. But if he’s successful, if things come together like he hopes, his work could lead to all types of cures.

“People expect we are thinking about curing a disease in our day to day, but that’s not really how it works,” said Cooke, who’s 44 years old but looks maybe 20 years younger. “What we’re doing is adding grains of sand to a pile, and someday someone is going to climb to the top of that pile and find a cure. Maybe that will be us, or maybe we will help someone else get there.”

His work boils the question of a cure down to the molecular level, studying how atoms produce free radicals, or unstable atoms desperately seeking electrons. These free radicals are produced when we’re exposed to harmful things like radiation or too much sunlight or cigarette smoke, and then they go to work invading all parts of our bodies.

Some of these free radicals do good, like combating bacteria. Other free radicals become harmful, causing disease and breaking down our DNA and protein, a process which causes aging. Cooke’s initial goal is to find a way to identify the bad ones. Once he does, then he can work on a way to eliminate them, which could quite possibly lead to curing all kinds of ills.

“I play this game with people where I’d ask them to name a disease and then I’d explain how free radicals come into play with it,” Cooke says. “It’s hard to find a disease that is not affected by them.”

The good news is that science already believes it has a way to combat free radicals. Antioxidants, found in foods like blueberries and broccoli, appear to do a good job beating them back.

One problem with describing his work, Cooke says, is that antioxidants and free radicals have become buzzwords. “Recently people have really jumped on the free radical bandwagon.”

Cooke isn’t the kind of scientist that you’ll find chained to a lab microscope. He’s more of a collaborator, the kind of guy who comes up with ideas by sitting down with his peers to solve problems. That’s exactly what the department needed, says Mark Williams, acting dean of FIU’s Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work. “Nowadays, science is so complex that the idea of a scientist in a lab doing his own work alone is not the reality,” Williams said. “We were looking for someone who is a good communicator, and that’s Marcus.”

That’s evident if you look at an invention Cooke patented. It’s called the Compac-50 HTP Comet Assay Tank. It helps process lab samples and is smaller than a desktop printer. It replaced a larger, more expensive, more complicated device. Cooke dreamed up the idea one day chatting with his lab workers about problems with the old unit. So he put together a prototype, and now his invention is being produced commercially.

It makes sense that Cooke is the guy who would come up with new ideas. He looks more rockabilly than scientist, with parted hair that slicks upward, a chain connecting his wallet to his belt, and black boots that look ready for a motorbike. His office also looks more like a museum to his passion, classic horror flicks, than one dedicated to science. “I do things in my personal life that are as far different as my day job as possible,” Cooke says. “You have to disconnect if you want to come in here and come up with new ideas.”

As for those friends from secondary school, most of them have gone on to jobs where they’re also good at arguing or proving a point. There’s a barrister, a foreign correspondent, the head of the European diesel engine program at Ford.

“When I think back on it now, maybe it sounds pretty nerdy that we spent all that time arguing about such nerdy things,” Cooke says. “But I’m glad we did.”

If it helps Cooke figure out free radicals someday, we all may be glad he did.