Science and Technology

Stoyan Bardarov's Genius

Mycobacterium Tuberculosis (Electron micrograph: University of Wisconsin).

Soon after midnight most nights, a Bulgarian could be seen leaving Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, on his way home. Early the next day he would salute the security guard with a broad smile and sink once again into the confines of his laboratory. That man was Dr. Stoyan Bardarov (1943-2002), and he was working on a new tuberculosis vaccine. In the small society of scientists fighting the dangerous disease, his is a household name. His son, Svetoslav Bardarov, was also a member of his team for the past seven years.

All of this so far might sound like a fairy tale had it not been for a tragic surprise. On Nov. 11, 2002, the esteemed researcher died ahead of his 59th birthday. “A man of genius and honesty,” read telegrams of condolence addressed to his family. A memorial took place on Dec. 9, 2002, at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Scientists from Great Britain, India, the Republic of South Africa, New Zealand, etc., recounted Bardarov’s cutting-edge contributions in the field of microbiology and immunology. Svetoslav Bardarov told Sega that his father did not like to flaunt his discoveries.

“The main topic of conversation both at the laboratory and at home was tuberculosis and the ways to find a more dependable and quick method to fix drug sensitivity. My father had already developed a test determining the sensitivity of medicines, but as he used to say, even if a method worked it should be improved further. The test was based on genetically modified viruses that infect only the tuberculosis bacteria. They exude an enzyme extracted from fireflies. The idea was that should there be any live bacilli in the samples, they would be infected by the virus and glow. If the bacilli are treated with antibiotics and are sensitive, then the light will not be separable from them.

“This in fact was my first project, patented by my father and me. He developed new tuberculosis-related tools using biotechnology, like the procedure for quickly generating mutant bacteria. Thanks to this technology, our laboratory ranks first in the world in generating unfamiliar bacterial strains. Some of them show promise as vaccines.”According to Svetoslav, his father was a perfectionist. His punctiliousness knew no bounds when it came to the methodology of his research. His 40-year-long experience in microbiology was priceless.

“My father was a source of knowledge missing from voluminous books,” the son says. Despite his enviable international reputation, Stoyan Bardarov is little known in his home country. His old friend Stanimir Kyurkchiev, a professor of immunology at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (BAS), recalls Bardarov’s road to recognition: “Stoyan completed his medical education in Bulgaria. In 1976 he went to Germany, where he prepared his doctoral thesis.

In 1982 he left for the United States to work with Dr. Roy Curtiss III at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. The next year he returned to Bulgaria and settled at BAS.

In the early ’90s he went back to America, embarking on tuberculosis-related research at Einstein in New York together with Dr. William R. Jacobs. “When we met last September in the United States, Stoyan had constructed a kind of tuberculosis bacteria that proved to be more effective than the BCG vaccine in infected mice. My friend talked agitatedly about the new and more effective types of vaccine. We parted at JFK Airport with many shared plans for the future. Alas, we didn’t know the end was coming….”

Dr. Bardarov’s 10-year stay in New York had proved to be extremely productive, professor John Shen wrote in a letter to Bardarov’s family. “Here he discovered original genetic methods to manipulate the genome of Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Dr. Bardarov’s many services to science included creating an exceptionally significant methodology allowing the removal through specialized transduction of particular genes in the microorganism that causes tuberculosis. This methodology is now utilized by many laboratories all over the world,” Shen concluded.

Following the long hours of laboratory research, Bardarov would go home and indulge in woodcarving and making wooden furniture. Another hobby of his was painting pictures—of viruses. An exhibition he and Bulgarian artist Houben Cherkelov made of these works, titled “Life’s Boundaries,” was an immense success.

Bardarov’s daughter Assya, a graduate in English philology and journalism, recalls: “Daddy used to say: There is no dream that cannot come true. He literally adopted Bulgarian immigrants who wanted to go into medicine and who were looking for a job. He did not spare himself and lived for others. For him, to give was always a pleasure.”