In a laboratory in Boston, sometime in the early half of the 20th century, Yellapragada Subbarao was painstakingly purifying molecules out of living cells to understand their compositions. After many long days of tireless work, he purified a molecule that would send waves into the medical community, allowing doctors to come closer to understanding the very essence of life itself.
Subbarao’s father died when he was a young boy. His mother, determined to help him complete his higher education, sold her jewellery so that her son could go to medical college. And it was thus that a young, eager boy from Andhra Pradesh joined the Madras Medical College.
While he was at college, the freedom movement led by Gandhi engulfed the nation. Eager to participate, Subbarao began wearing khadi to support Gandhi. However, this did not sit well with his British professor. Although a good student, Subbarao’s patriotism might have cost him his MBBS degree – he was instead granted an inferior Licentiate in Medical Surgery (LMS).
In 1923, Subbarao arrived in Boston and got a scholarship for a diploma at the School of Tropical Health at Harvard. Since he did not have a license to practice medicine in the US, he took a job as a night porter at the Brigham and Women’s hospital, changing sheets and cleaning urinals.
Over time, he made friends at the hospital and got a day job as a researcher in the Division of Biochemistry. His initial project involved purifying molecules from cells. It was tedious work, but he persevered. It was during this project that Subbarao discovered the source of energy in all living beings – adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
His discovery was a phenomenal breakthrough in the world of medicine, and should have guaranteed him tenure at Harvard. Unfortunately, he was denied both tenure and recognition.
So Subbarao left Harvard, and joined a pharmaceutical company in New York, called Lederle Labs. He focused on creating synthetic versions of natural chemicals in cells, to be used as nutritional supplements. His key focus was folic acid – an essential requirement for the formation of blood. It was during this process that Subbarao created another medical breakthrough, this time in the fight against cancer.
During the process of synthesising folic acid, Subbarao realised that he could also create molecular ‘mimics’ to folic acid, which would cause an opposite reaction in cells – while folic acid aided the genesis of blood, these mimics would block it. Naturally, they were named antifolates.
Dr. Sydney Farber was an oncologist working with leukemia, cancer of the blood. Farber had been trying to find a way to stop cancerous blood cells from multiplying, and Subbarao’s antifolate produced remarkable results. When Farber injected antifolates into a leukemia patient, he noticed that the number of cancerous cells in the blood stopped rising, plateaued and even decreased. The antifolates had blocked the creation of new blood cells, which meant that no cancerous cells were being formed.
This was a huge step in the potential of using chemotherapy to treat cancer. Subbarao went on to add many more significant contributions to the field of medicine, many of which should have earned him a Nobel Prize. But Subbarao was a foreigner, ‘a reclusive, nocturnal, heavily accented vegetarian’, and sadly, remained hidden the in the background as healthcare and medicine continued to advance into the future, thanks to his work.
Dixit, Vasant S. “Unknown facets of “not so well-known scientist” Dr. Y Subbarow: A great scientist, who did not receive the Nobel Prize” Journal of Marine Medical Society. January 10th, 2019. Web. <http://www.marinemedicalsociety.in/article.asp?issn=0975-3605;year=2018;volume=20;issue=2;spage=141;epage=144;aulast=Dixit >as seen on May 5th, 2020.
Mukherjee, Siddhartha. The Emperor of All Maladies. New York: Scribner, 2010. Print.