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In Memoriam

In Memory of Prem Ponka, MD, PhD, FCMA

Prem Ponka (born as Přemysl Poňka) passed away while at a conference in Paris. He was Professor of Physiology at McGill University and Senior Investigator at the Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research in Montreal, Canada. He obtained his MD in 1964 and his PhD (in Physiology) in 1969 from Charles University, Prague.

From 1968 to 1979 he served as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pathophysiology at Charles University in Prague. As Czechoslovakia was then under an oppressive communist rule, he emigrated to Montreal in 1979 under difficult circumstances, and resumed his academic career at McGill and the Lady Davis Institute. While still behind the “iron curtain”, Prem developed an interest in the study of iron and heme metabolism and throughout his career continued making major contributions in this area of research.

Prem demonstrated that iron uptake is the limiting factor for erythroid heme synthesis. He formulated the ‘kiss-and-run hypothesis”, according to which iron is directly delivered from endosomes to mitochondria in erythroid cells. He discovered a critical role of the heme catabolic enzyme heme oxygenase in erythroid cell physiology. Furthermore, Prem developed a new class of cell permeable iron chelators (SIH, PIH and analogues), which are widely used by researchers in the field.

Prem was an active member of the BioIron Society and organized its first international conference in Prague in 2005. He also organized an earlier “iron conference” in Montebello, Quebec, in 1987.

Prem was an acclaimed scientist who received broad recognition for his work, and was in high demand as a lecturer and peer-reviewer of manuscripts and grant proposals in Canada, USA, Czech Republic and elsewhere.

He was recently (2019) honored by the BioIron Society with the Special Presidential Award for Lifetime Achievements. Prem has also received the Medal for Merit to Commemorate the 650th Anniversary of Charles University, Prague (1998), and the Purkinje Medal from the Czechoslovak Medical Association of J. E. Purkinje (1975).

He was a devoted colleague with encyclopedic knowledge of the history and personalities of the bioiron field, and a renaissance man with a broad interest in science, history, philosophy and arts. He was a dedicated proponent of political and intellectual freedom and tolerance, with a unique sense of humor.

Prem had no plans to retire and passed away as an active scientist, exactly as he envisioned.

He is survived by his wife Dr. Jitka Ponka, adult children Dr. David Ponka and Claire Ponka, and grandchildren. Prem will be greatly missed by his colleagues at the BioIron Society, McGill University and the Lady Davis Institute.

Kostas Pantopoulos (McGill University) and Tomas Ganz (UCLA)

posted: November 6, 2019