The engineer of sleep

Brazilian doctor Sérgio Tufik is the researcher who publishes most studies on sleep disorders worldwide. Respected, he wants to take his knowledge to the Arabs.

Cl√°udia Abreu
claudia@anba.com.br

S√£o Paulo ‚Äď Since the 1990’s, the Arab surname of a Brazilian has been in the first place in the world ranking of researchers who regularly publish works on sleep disorders. It is doctor S√©rgio Tufik, the founder and coordinator of the Sleep Institute, connected to the Federal University of S√£o Paulo (Unifesp), in S√£o Paulo. With Lebanese grandparents, Tufik became interested in the matter in the 1970s, when studying sleep was not on the curriculum of Medical schools. "I defended my thesis on sleep in 1978 and, one year later, the first classification of sleep disorders in the world came out," he explained.

Tufik’s choice was by chance, but certain. First he gave up engineering to take on Medicine. "While I was in college, I started studying a thing I called psycho-neuro-cybernetics. Everybody laughed, as they did not find it something reasonable. We didn’t even have computers at the time," he explained. But being a visionary, Tufik thought his research was possible and progressed with the matter. His doctoral thesis raised the question again. "I had difficulties with my initial idea. I was studying the deprivation of sleep to modify the effects of marijuana. But I could not find the results I sought, so I talked to my orientator and focussed on sleep disorders," said Tufik. And he no longer stopped.

The development of research in the area of sleep and his work with polyssonography (a method that evaluates sleep and its physiological variables) took Tufik to a greater project: the establishment of the Sleep Institute, in 1992. The institution develops pioneering studies in its area, provides diagnostic services to the population, assisting patients through the SUS (Unified Healthcare System), for example, and trains professionals ‚Äď mainly doctors and technicians in polyssonography. "Up to now we have trained 461 doctors in the area of sleep," says a proud Tufik. The professionals are working throughout Brazil.

With regard to the research developed, doctor Tufik is also proud of the last one developed: an epidemiological study of sleep complaints in the city of S√£o Paulo. Up to now three studies have been developed. In the most recent, 1,100 people in the city were taken to do polyssonograms at the institute. "It cost much work, as one thing is passing out a questionnaire and another is recording everybody, collecting blood, etc," says the doctor. And, according to Tufik, very controversial figures were observed. "For example, with regard to apnea, something studies show that 2% to 8% of the population has, we found the disturbance in 32% of the population. Insomnia has risen in the city, due to stress, violence, etc," he said.

Brazil in the lead

The serious work by Tufik and his team ‚Äď four professors in the disciplines of Medicine and sleep Biology at the Unifesp and a group of eight orientators ‚Äď also raised the university to an important position in the matter of sleep disorders. "We are now in the fourth place in the world. We are ahead of universities like Toronto (Canada), Johns Hopkins, Mayo, Missouri (all in the United States) and Bologna (Italy). We are doing very well," said Tufik. And that is with a team that is considered small. The Sleep Institute, in turn, is considered the largest in the world, in terms of scientific production (a figure boosted by Tufik’s work) and services supplied. "In terms of laboratories, I believe that we only lose to the United States and Germany," he says.

From Lebanon to Piraju

So much effort has roots in the Arab countries, but mainly in Lebanon, where Tufik’s grandfather came from, at the age of just 14. "He arrived in Brazil as an adolescent, in Porto Alegre, under a Turkish passport (due to the Ottoman empire) and penniless. He was robbed on the ship," he explained. But nothing would make him give up. He had relatives in the interior of S√£o Paulo, in the city of Piraju, he grabbed his bags and set foot on the road. "He bought and sold things, it took him three years to get there, but he managed," explained Tufik, who liked hearing his grandfather’s stories.

In Piraju, the patriarch of the family got married at 17 years of age. "And, of course he set up his shop," jokes Tufik. "He was a self-made man," adds the doctor. He soon learnt the language and headed towards the capital. His family moved to Ibitinga and Tufik’s father, who was born there, had better chances, coming to study in S√£o Paulo. "My father’s generation did not get to college, but they evolved a little more and opened businesses in the city," he says.

The family’s conquest came in the next generation, the third, which reached college. "With all the uncertainty of an immigrant, my grandfather set up a beautiful family in Brazil," said Tufik, who considers the country an example for the world with regard to the respect do different races. "Brazil is a world icon in the aspect of mixing peoples. We are very special in that. In the United States, all races are present, but they are all separate. Not here, everybody mixed, even the Japanese, who were a little more conservative, the Jews and all. We make up a great nation with all the genes. We worked on a recent study and analysed the genetic origin of people. Brazil has everything, a total mixture. Genetic democracy is here," he jokes.

Transfer of knowledge

Happy and touched by recent statements by US president Barack Obama, regarding the development of relations with the Arabs, Sérgio Tufik says that now, his "next conquest" should be to take his great knowledge about sleep disorders to the Arab world. "I would greatly like to help the Arab countries in the question of sleep. It would be a return to my origins. I know that they participate very little, that they find it hard, so it would be fantastic," said the researcher, a professor and doctor in sleep. Tufik has already travelled to several countries in the region, and he knows much about Arab culture. In Brazil, the doctor is preparing for November this year the promotion of the World Sleep Congress, to bring together researchers from all over the world. This will be the first time it takes place in the country.

*Translated by Mark Ament

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