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May 08, 2011

Page: 34/36

Home > 2011 Issues > May 08, 2011

SubbaRow: The biochemical prodigy

By Dr Vaidehi Nathan

“I F god granted me one more year of life, we can conquer another disease,” said Dr Yellapragada SubbaRow to his colleagues. That sums up the man and mission. He wanted to live so that his fight against diseases could continue. SubbaRow (1895–1948), the unsung hero of several path-breaking medicines, died when he was building the first ever cancer research facility of any pharmaceutical company, at the Lederle Laboratories, which he joined in 1940.

At this lab, he directed the research that yielded three medical molecules. These did wonders for patients suffering from such varied problems as anemia, metabolic, infectious and vector-borne diseases. Among these, folic acid is the foremost discovery he made. It has subsequently found several applications and is prescribed mandatorily to pregnant women world over.

SubbaRow was looking for alternatives to Penicillin, which had a high rate of intolerance. He got a retired botany professor to screen soil samples from world over and zeroed in on A-377. A shot of this for the first time controlled both gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria. The second generation of this medicine, tetracycline, was used to eradicate plague in India in 1994. Doxycycline, the third generation tetracycline has been proved to be a medicine for a tough strain of malaria.

In the Ayurvedic College in Chennai, SubbaRow had started research into medicine for elephantiasis, the disfiguring disease. He resumed this in Lederle to protect American soldiers engaged in the war in the Pacific region. With his assistants he derived Diethyl-Carbamazine (DEC). The doctors though initially hesitated to use it as it had unpleasantness in high doses. But the World Health Organization found in 1988 that a single dose of DEC keeps the blood free of the disease creating worms for a year.

The online archives contains substantial documents on the scientist. It contains some unpublished work relating to kidney, spleen, liver and pancreas. When death caught him aware, SubbaRow was preparing for the big fight against cancer. Though starting relatively late, SubbaRow’s strike rate at success was high. He came out with one medicine after another. His ‘home’ the Lederle labs became a multinational giant and it took care of him sufficiently for him to own an aircraft, which he flew.

American Cyanamid, the parent corporation of Lederle laboratories have erected a memorial Plaque at its Pearl River research complex and the library is named after him. His colleague Hesseltine named a newly discovered alga Subbaromyces splendens. Its Indian counterpart is Subbaromyces aquatic.

He wrote to his wife very occasionally and once even asked her ‘not to wait for him.’ After leaving the shores of India he never came back even once. Work engrossed him and he was a man in a hurry to conquer more and more diseases. His wife outlived him by several years. The couple had no children.

SubbaRow was the kind of man who was contended to let his assistants go on stage to receive awards and accolades for achievements, of which he was the team leader and brain behind. This perhaps was one of the reasons why his name is not very well known outside the world of biochemistry. In India too his contribution to medicine has not been recognised and acknowledged. The main source of information on SubbRow is the biography In Quest of panacea authored by Shri S P K Gupta, who retired from the Press Trust of India (PTI) as its Moscow Editor. He has worked relentlessly to get SubbaRow his due recognition. The Trust founded by him holds exhibitions showcasing the life and work of SubbaRow. Presently, the school children are being introduced to this great man through exhibitions, brochures and lectures.

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