Unknown great scientists of India

Unknown great scientists of India

"You've probably never heard of Dr. Yellapragada SubbaRao," wrote Doron K. Antrim.
"Yet because he lived you may live longer"

Yellapragada Subbarao

*Awtar Krishan Ganju

Dr. Yellapragada Subbarao, one of the most eminent Indian medicinal chemists was born on January 12, 1895 in Bheemavaram, Andhra Pradesh, India. After a short life during which he made extraordinary contributions to medicinal chemistry, he passed away on August 9, 1948. Dr. Subbarao was born in a poor family and passed his high school examination on the third attempt from the Hindu High School in Madras. He wanted to become a sanyasi but as his mother would not agree, he was advised by the Rama Krishna Mission to become a doctor. He attended Presidency College and was admitted to the Madras Medical College, supported by his future father-in-law, Kasturi Suryanarayana Murthy. Influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s Swadeshi movement , he boycotted British goods and started wearing khadi surgical gloves, which incurred the displeasure of his surgery professor, resulting in being awarded a LMS rather than the more prestigious MBBS degree. He joined as a lecturer in Anatomy at Dr.Lakshmipathi's Ayurvedic College and got interested in Ayervedic medicine.

A visiting American doctor encouraged him to come to USA for further studies. Supported by Satyalinga Naicker Charities, Kakinada and his father-in-law, he arrived in Boston on October 26, 1923. As his LMS medical degree would not qualify for a scholarship or get him internship in Boston Hospitals, he worked on odd jobs. He finally managed to get a diploma in Tropical Medicine from the Harvard Medical School and joined the biochemistry laboratory of Dr. Cyrus Fiske. In this lab, he made some important discoveries such as the colorimetric method for estimation of phosphorus in body fluids and tissues. He discovered the role of phosphocreatine and adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in muscular activity. After getting his Ph.D in biochemistry, he was not offered a position at Harvard and joined Lederle Laboratories, a division of American Cyanamid in Pearl River. He led a group of researchers at Lederle who under his leadership made some major discoveries in medicinal chemistry. His interest in folic acid ( Vitamin B9) led to its use in prevention of anemia in pregnancy and as a food additive for prevention of spinal cord defects in newborns. His team discovered the first tetracycline antibiotic (Aureomycin) which could kill both gram negative and gram positive bacteria. His interest in folic acid led to the synthesis of antifolate drugs such as Aminopterin, used in chemotherapy. Dr. Sidney Farber at the Children’s Hospital in Boston was instrumental in getting the antifolates synthesized by Dr. Subbarao and his team for clinical trials in leukemia patients. In 1953, methotrexate was approved by US Food and Drug Administration for cancer chemotherapy and continues to be one of our best and oldest chemotherapeutic anti-metabolite for cancer treatment. Low dose methotrexate is used to treat a wide variety of non-cancerous diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, psoriasis, asthma and inflammatory bowel disease. Some of the other drugs discovered by his team include Doxycycline, tetracyclines, diethylcarbamazine which are used for control of malaria, bacterial infections and filaria (elephantiasis).

Dr. Subbarao was a humble man and when his boss Dr. Fiske was being considered for promotion as Chairman of Biochemistry at the Harvard Medical School, Dr. Subbarao testified that all the discoveries they had jointly made were due to the ideas of Fiske and he was only a pair of hands. Noble laureate, Dr. George Hitchings has said that "Some of the nucleotides isolated by Subbarao had to be rediscovered years later by other workers because Fiske, apparently out of jealousy, did not let Subbarao's contributions see the light of the day". Although Noble Committee never considered him for an award, they did hang his portrait in their office. American Cyanamide honored him by naming a new fungus (Subbaromyces splendens) after him. Dr. Subbarao remained an resident alien in the US and even though he led some of our World War II medical research, his status and loyalty was often challenged as he was an immigrant from India. However, the contributions he made belong and benefit all of us especially the present day US citizen scientist of Indian origin who benefit from his excellence and contributions to our positive image in the USA. .

Dr. Subbarao did not sell his scientific discoveries, did not seek patents for any of his drugs and never sought the lime light of the press and media. Being a shy person by nature, he shunned interviews to the press, awards, honours and recognition.. Next year in 2008 we will celebrate 60 birth day of this noble and humble Indian. Karmyogi

Awtar Krishan and Jennipher Adi

Material for this article was taken from the following sources:
1. www.ysubbarow.com
2. History of Medicine :- Dr. Yellapragada Subborow (1895-1948) He transformed Science; Changed Lives. by Dr. Pushpa Mitra Bhargava
3. www.wikipedia.com

*Dr. Awtar Krishan obtained his PhDs from the Panjab University (1962) and the Univ. of Western Ontario, Canada (1963) in Cytogenetics and Anatomy. From 1965 to 1977, he was at the Sidney Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School as Head of the Tissue Ultrastructure and Experimental Pathology Labs.

He has developed flow cytometric techniques for rapid analysis of DNA content by hypotonic propidium iodide, monitoring of drug retention and resistance, and more recently for monitoring hormone receptor expression in archival tumors. He is currently Director, Analytical Cytometry Laboratory , at University of Miami, Florida.

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