The Wizard of Antibiotics – Yellapragada Subbarao
– Doron K. Antrim, American Author (1950) on the Indian Biochemist
In 1895, Yellapragada Subbarao was born to a poor Telugu Niyogi Brahmin family in Bhimavaram district of Old Madras Presidency, now in West Godavari district, Andhra Pradesh. He was the fourth child among the seven children of Y. Jagganatham and Y. Venkamma. Though, his father worked as a revenue inspector, the family grappled with many hardships and financial difficulties due to the loss of many of his close relations. As such, his schooling at Rajahmundry was a traumatic phase leading him to complete matriculation in his third attempt from Hindu High School in Madras. He attained his intermediate education from Presidency College and took admission in Madras Medical College with his education being financed by his friends and his godfather, Kasturi Suryanarayana Murthy. He later went on to marry Murthy’s daughter.
During the freedom movement, Subbarao was deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi that led him to boycott the use of British goods and adopt khadi surgical outfits instead. This displeased his partially racist Anglican professor, M.C. Bradfield, who qualified him for a lesser LMS Certificate instead of an MBBS degree, despite his good performance in all written examinations. He tried to get through Madras Medical Services but failed to do so. The circumstances led him to work as an anatomy lecturer in Dr. Lakshmipathi’s Ayurvedic College at Madras.
After gaining much interest in Ayurveda, he diverted his attention towards conducting his research in this field. But soon, he was back on track after meeting an American doctor who was touring India on the much-coveted Rockefeller Scholarship. With financial help from his father-in-law, Murthy and a promise of support from Malladi Satyalingam Naicker Charities, he finally sailed to Boston in US on October 26, 1922.
Contributions to the Field of Medicine
Subbarao went on to discover many antibiotics for a wide range of cures at Lederle other than the already discovered penicillin and streptomycin. His research led him to the discovery of Polymyxin which is still being used in the cattle-feed. This laid the foundation for isolating Vitamin B9, the antipernicious anemia factor, based on the previous works of Lucy Wills in 1945. At Lederle, he was also credited for discovering the drug Hetrazen, a cure for filariasis. According to World Health Organization, this drug is known to be the most widely used medicine for treating filariasis today.
In the same year, the man supervised Benjamin Duggar who went on to discover the world’s first Tetracycline antibiotic, Aureomycin. This resulted in one of the widely accepted scientific experiments till date with the soil samples being exclusively collected from the American soldiers during World War II at Lederle Laboratories. At the lab, the anti-bacterial agents were extracted from natural soil fungi. Another medicine that Subbarao discovered was Isonicotinic Acid Hydrazide, an effective cure for tuberculosis.
Though, he did not receive a Nobel Prize, but his discoveries entitle him to be referred as the father of targeted cancer chemotherapy. Initially, he worked in the laboratory of Cyrus Fiske at Harvard Medical School, and later became the Director of Research at the Lederle Laboratories. First, he invented a methodology for measuring phosphorus, the Fiske-Subbarao method, which led him to discover two other critically important phosphate-containing molecules, Phosphocreatine and Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP). Till October 2013, his research paper was cited 22,547 times. He came up with a conclusion that ATP functions as the principal source of energy for metabolic processes. On the other hand, Phosphocreatine provides energy to the muscle and brain during periods of exaggerated need.
Moved by the death of two brothers from Tropical sprue, Subbarao led the research that synthesized folic acid which is essential for the formation of DNA. Finally, he was motivated to conceive and develop the folic acid analogs, Aminopterin and Amethopterin (Methotrexate). These folic acid analogs act as inhibitors of DNA synthesis in rapidly proliferating leukemic cells and resulted first remissions of childhood acute leukemia. The discoveries were not serendipitous, but the fruits of a brilliant, insightful mind.
Recognition That Followed
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