Dr Mark Baker has picked up the pace of sperm cell research by harnessing the power of proteomics.

Kicking goals

Dr Mark Baker has picked up the pace of sperm cell research by harnessing the power of proteomics.

Mark Baker on the soccer field 

There is a competitive side to Dr Mark Baker, who likes to keep fit and, at 37, still enjoys the challenge of matching strides with younger opponents on the soccer field. But the race Baker is most keen to win is the one to develop a male version of the contraceptive pill – and the proteomics expert believes his research team at the University of Newcastle has a real chance of achieving that goal.

"We are the world leaders in sperm proteomics," points out Baker, who was the first researcher to create a complete inventory of the proteins in sperm and has established a state-of-the-art proteomics laboratory at the University. "The work we do is part of a worldwide effort but we are recognised as pioneers and the most progressive group in our field."

Baker joined the University's influential Reproductive Science Group, led by Laureate Professor John Aitken, after being awarded a PhD from Monash University in 2002. Aitken, who specialises in sperm cell biology, recognised the potential in combining their areas of expertise towards the common goal of solving the mysteries of male fertility. 

Whilst Baker's ultimate goal is to develop a male contraceptive, his research has equal potential to assist men who are infertile, as it is necessary to understand the mechanisms of infertility in order to mimic the condition with a male contraceptive. In identifying and publishing the sperm proteome, Baker advanced the number of known proteins from less than 40 to more than 1200. He and the research team have subsequently narrowed down that list of proteins to a handful that can potentially be targeted by fertility drugs.

"One of the important criteria is that the protein is found only in the testes, because if you are designing a drug that inhibits a protein you don't want it to affect other parts of the body," Baker explains.  "So, we have identified a number of proteins that we know are both unique to the testes and are vital for fertility. We are now moving into the next phase of the research, which is designing a drug to target them."

Baker's work has attracted the attention of Bayer (formerly Bayer Schering Pharma), one of the first companies to market the contraceptive pill back in the 1960s. He has also established collaborations with leading international research groups in the field.

"The implications of our research are widespread when you consider that about half of all pregnancies in Australia are unwanted or unplanned and that there are about 250 abortions for every 1000 live births," Baker asserts. "There are also thousands of women who suffer side effects from contraception and there is an inextricable link between poverty and high birth rates in developing counties. As you can imagine, there is a real global imperative to improve options by developing a male contraceptive. At the same time, up to 10 per cent of the male population is infertile, so we want to be able to help them as well."

Baker has contributed his expertise in identifying the protein structure of cells to other interesting collaborations with leading University health researchers. He is currently working with Professor Hubert Hondermark on a project to detect metastatic potential in breast cancer cells and with Conjoint Professor Jim Denham to determine new biomarkers for prostate cancer. He is also working with members of the translational stroke research team on a project investigating indicators of stroke in cerebral spinal fluid.

Baker holds a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Career Development Fellowship to research sperm motility and is an investigator on several projects supported by the NHMRC. Late last year he received the 2011 Early Career Researcher Award sponsored by the Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI) fundraising group PULSE.

Baker's research in sperm-egg recognition and proteomic analysis of sperm cells is internationally recognised and has been cited more than 950 times. The proteomics laboratory he was instrumental  in establishing, with its world-class mass spectrometry equipment, has made a broad contribution to research at the University of Newcastle,  supporting work across the disciplines of life science, science, medicine and engineering as well as research from HMRI and international and national collaborations.

Two minds are better than one

The powerful combination of Laureate Professor John Aitken's vast knowledge of sperm cell biology and Dr Mark Baker's proteomics prowess makes the University of Newcastle's Reproductive Science Group a formidable force in the research field of sperm function and male fertility.

"John and I decided seven years ago that we needed to investigate the proteins in sperm cells to understand the mechanisms of fertility," Baker advises. "We saw the potential in it and went after it, and the University has backed us all the way. We quickly got into the field and we have raised the bar."

Baker believes he has benefited greatly from working with Aitken, one of the world's most esteemed reproductive scientists. "He has been my primary mentor, but it is a relationship built on mutual respect," Baker emphasises. "There is a willingness to work together but also a willingness to listen to each other's points of view – and that is critical to successful research: to be able to agree but also disagree."

Aitken describes Baker as"an ideal example of how postdoctoral researchers can blossom into fully-fledged professional scientists when the University supports their careers."Now, Mark is generating research income in his own right that will more than repay the investment the University has made in developing his research portfolio."

Visit the Centre for Reproductive Science website

Visit the HMRI website