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November 13, 1999
All For A Cause
R S Shankar in Houston
Apurba Bhattacharya can talk for hours about the two dozen patents on drugs he holds -- and his role in developing Proscar, used in fighting prostate cancer, and in recent years, also to combat baldness.
In developing Proscar in 1990 which was approved two years later by the Federal Drug Agency, Bhattacharya discovered that the enzymes that caused prostate inflammation also cause baldness. He began then to develop a drug, Propecia, to control the enzyme.
But as the recently minted professor indicated to a visitor to the campus of Texas A&M University, his one singular aim in life has been to pursue medical research to save lives. And he would rather talk about what drew him away from the glamorous research firms to an institution that is little-known outside southern Texas.
There was one life he wishes his research could have saved. The life was lost because his family was not in a position to take his sister to the best of hospitals in India.
"I knew that if we had been able to afford the right drugs and medical attention, she would have survived," he said recently in an interview, recalling the death nearly three decades ago in Calcutta.
"I saw her lying there with tubes coming out of her, knowing that if we had more money, she would have lived."
He often shares his helplessness at his sister's death with his colleagues and students, just to share his inspiration and motivate the students to persist in helping humankind, he says. He wants them to work on life-saving drugs. Though many diseases that could not be cured a century ago have now cures, he challenges his students to think of the new millennium and work on life-saving and life-improving drugs.
And most important, he is making a humanistic statement. Texas A&M has some of the most disadvantaged students in the nation, who despite economic hardships and social problems, are fighting for a better world.
Bhattacharya said he first came to South Texas because his wife, Cathy Dulak, is a Corpus Christi doctor.
But taking up the job at A&M was a life-affirming gesture. He says many students at the school remind him of his own background in India and he wants to empower them so that they can fulfill their aspirations.
"I want to help the students here, many of whom came from poor backgrounds like mine," he said. "I want to give them the confidence that they can achieve their dreams and change the world.
Bhattacharya, whose research at such top pharmaceutical firms Merck and Bristol-Myers Squibb, has focused on anti-cancer agents in particular, took up teaching to give back something to the country that has helped him immensely, he says. As an associate professor, he reportedly makes about $ 70,000, way below what he earned as a researcher.
On the campus, Bhattacharya is a celebrity.
Mauro Castro, chairman of the chemistry department, who was partly responsible for hiring 40-plus Bhattacharya says he is in awe of the new professor.
Castro also says that Bhattacharya is a natural communicator and explains lucidly the most complex formulae. Many American educators know that renowned researchers often fail as teachers and communicators. Bhattacharya is among the exceptions.
In recent years, Bhattacharya has also become involved in "green chemistry," and has been designing environmentally benign/waste-free chemistry with special emphasis towards current industrial synthesis and processes utilizing homogeneous and heterogeneous catalyst systems.
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