OMAR BAGASRA, M.D., PH.D.
In 1948, somewhere on the plains of India, Omar Bagasra was born in a back of a wooden oxcart. His refugee family was migrating north during the exodus of the twenty-five million souls who were forced to leave their ancestral homelands when the former British colony of India was being partitioned during its struggle to become independent. At least eight million of these refugees—Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus alike—perished in this partitioning. Being Muslims, Omar’s family settled in the new nation of Pakistan, where his father became a successful grain merchant and where ten more brothers and sisters were born and one was adopted. In this somewhat volatile environment, Omar grew into a young man.
At age of 16, Omar decided to study other faiths and adopted an ascetic life style—starting as a Buddhist monk-a creed for where warfare is anathema. He left his parents’ home in Pakistan and journeyed to a monastery in Tibet and lived as a Buddhist disciple, and then moved to Northern provinces and Afghanistan and visited many Faqirs. After two years of a life of a Faqir, Omar reflected that the scientific understanding of nature was just as important a path to truth as the more mystical, consciousness approach of the ascetic monks.
He therefore returned to Pakistan and enrolled in the University of Karachi, where he earned a bachelor and a master’ degree in biochemistry. “I wanted to get even higher education,” he says, “but in Pakistan at that time, that was as high as I could get.” So, in 1972, he flew to Chicago’s O’Hare airport—carrying just a suitcase of clothing and an extra hundred dollars in his pocket.
Omar didn’t know anyone in the U.S., but he soon found employment in the road construction industry and he learned to speak better English—his seventh language. He then got better job manufacturing brake shoes for the Ford Motor supplier in Albion, Indiana, near Ft. Wayne. Omar saved his wages and enrolled at the University of Louisville; soon he got his first scientific job working as a lab technician at the nearby Clark County Memorial Hospital in Jeffersonville, Indiana. There he met a young nurse, Theresa Mahoney, and the two were married. By 1980, Omar had earned a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology. He joined a group in Albany, NY to do his post-doctoral fellowship in Infectious Disease and the family moved to Philadelphia, when his post-doc mentor moved to the city, where Omar became a junior faculty member at Hahnemann University and a citizen of the United States of America.
Soon thereafter, Dr. Bagasra decided to go to medical school. But admissions policies at that time were very restrictive for individuals born and educated overseas and the tuition was more than he can afford, so the 32-year-old Omar—never one to be confined by national borders—went to study medicine at the Universidad Autónoma in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. After two years of study, he went to Temple University, where he completed his clinical training. Subsequently, he completed residency in anatomic pathology at Hahnemann and Temple Universities., a fellowship in Clinical Laboratory Immunology at the Saint Christopher’s Hospital for Children, while serving as a full time faculty member at Hahnemann University, all in Philadelphia.
Before coming to Claflin University, Dr. Bagasra held professorships at Hahnemann University (1980-1987) and Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, where he served as director of the Molecular Retrovirology Laboratories and Section Chief of Molecular Diagnostics of the Center for the Study of Human Viruses, as well a Professor of Medicine from 1991-98. Dr. Bagasra also keeps a hand in clinical work—he is currently board-eligible in anatomic pathology and a diplomat of the American Board of Medical Laboratory Immunology (ABMLI), and the American Board of Forensic Examiners and a Fellow of the American College of Forensic Examiners.
Dr. Bagasra’s research interests have long been associated with the study of HIV and AIDS. In fact, he has been on the trail of the virus since 1981—the year of the first scientific report. For the past several years, he has focused on trying to gain insight into the molecular pathogenesis of HIV and role of microRNA in protection against lentiviruses. In 1998, he was the first to clearly discuss the protective role of small RNAs against retrovirus and lentivirus (“HIV and Molecular Immunity,”). His unswerving dedication to his work has resulted in over 200 scientific articles, book chapters, and books. In 1995, he was nominated for the King Faisal Award for Medicine. During the last few years he has received several national and international prestigious awards and recognitions. In 2002 he received Faculty Scholar Award from the American Association for Cancer Research. In 2006 he was the co-recipient of the South Carolina Governor’s Award for Excellence in Science. From 2002-2006 he also served as the Council Member of the American Association of Cancer Research (MICR-AACR). Dr. Bagasra currently serves as professor of Biology and the director of the South Carolina Center for Biotechnology at Claflin University.
The former chief of Institut Pasteur’s Luc Montagnier, the co-discoverer of the AIDS virus and 2008 Nobel Laureate-described Dr. Bagasra as “a skilful researcher…(and) a discerning scholar who explores new ideas”, observing he already had a track record for challenging conventional wisdom and being proved correct. “Every scientist now knows that a significant percentage of circulating lymphocytes are infected with HIV….but in 1992 his findings were highly controversial,”
Dr. Bagasra has been funded by several federal agencies and is working on a novel vaccine against HIV (awarded a patent in 2012) and on an early diagnosis of prostate cancer. He had been also involved in Biofuel and Biodefence projects and in setting up the DNA Forensic laboratory for Claflin University. His undergraduate and graduate students have received top awards at the national and international levels and have published in peer-review journals. Many of his recent research have brought national attention to Claflin University.
Published in CourierPost of NJ in 1980s and updated in periodically.