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The Forgotten Indian Medical Genius

Yellapragada SubbaRow, an Indian from Andhra Pradesh in the 1940s pioneered path-breaking research in the US in biochemistry, helping to bring to humankind some lifesaving drugs widely used today.

The admirers of Yellapragada SubbaRow, a name very few Indians would be familiar with, say he deserves a place in the pantheon of top scientists in the land of his birth.

SubbaRow, who headed research at US pharma giant Lederle Laboratories in the 1940s, gave to the world some very vital drugs - folic acid, an anti-filarial drug, used widely even today, a wide-spectrum antibiotic and a drug to fight cancer. But he unfortunately died relatively young, at the age of 53 in 1948. This, say his admirers, prevented the man from Bhimavaram in Andhra Pradesh in getting the international recognition that he rightly deserved.

American author Doron Antrim had written after his death: "You've probably never herd of Dr. Yellapragada SubbaRow. Yet because he lived you may be alive and are well today. Because he lived, you may live longer."

It was while working for Lederle Laboratories, now a part of Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, that SubbaRow along with his team of enthusiastic and committed young researchers isolated three medical molecules, one of which yielded the vitamin folic acid and the anti-folic gave Methotrexate, a cancer fighter.

Folic acid is recognised today as a crucial drug. Given to a pregnant woman, the drug prevents major birth defects in the baby's brain and spine, and new studies suggest it could help prevent heart disease, stroke and is beneficial in fighting some cancers.

SubbaRow and his team were responsible for the discovery of Aureomycin, which when tweaked to become the tetracycline molecule, turned into a wide spectrum and effective antibiotic, which could be administered orally. The drug helped eradicate the plague which broke out in Gujarat and Maharashtra in 1994.

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