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Govindaswamy Chinnadurai: Searching for cure for cancer

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 16, 2012 - He was old enough to go to school, but no one made him. So he didn’t. Not until a teacher in his village asked one day, “Why are you walking around?” adding, “Just go to school!” And so, at age 6, trailing his peers by a year, future scientist Govindaswamy Chinnadurai started school. 

In the early 1950s in Tamil Nadu, now one of the most literate of India’s 28 states, there were no laws about school attendance. Even if there had been, enforcement would have been highly unlikely in Chinnadurai’s tiny farming village of Vaduvur.

“There wasn’t a lot of incentive to go to school,” Chinnadurai said.

As he grew older, Chinnadurai sometimes worked in the rice fields alongside his parents and older brother.

“Even though I was a farm boy I didn’t work all the time,” Chinnadurai said. “I was good in school; that’s why my parents decided to send me to college.”

But there was no money for college.

“Dad told me I could sell a piece of property if I couldn’t get a scholarship; luckily, I got a scholarship and my brother, Sakthivelan, helped me,” Chinnadurai said.

Next month, Chinnadurai, 66, whom most call “Chinna”, will receive the Fellows Award from the Academy of Science St. Louis for groundbreaking cancer research. 

The little boy who had to be prodded to go to school is now a renowned scientist and professor at Saint Louis University’s Institute for Molecular Virology. He received his bachelor’s degree in agricultural science from Annamalai University in Annamalai Nagar, Tamil Nadu.  After earning a master’s in plant pathology from the University of Madras in Madras, Tamil Nadu, he began a plant pathology fellowship at theCatholic University of Louvain in Belgium. 

Cancer in the family

Fifteen months into the fellowship, Chinnadurai changed fields – and continents. He sought and received a fellowship at the University of Texas at Dallas, where he completed a master’s and a doctorate in molecular biology.

It was the realization of a dream. 

“When I was very young, I used to walk around and say to people, ‘I’m going to go and study in America and be a scientist’,” Chinnadurai said.

He was barely out of high school when his father died of throat cancer from chewing betel nut, an Asian plant that has been deemed a carcinogen. His first wife died of leukemia in 1998. Last year, his brother, who remained to work on the family farm, died of the same cancer as their father.

He’s unsure of the impact that deaths in his family had on his career choices. What is certain is that for the past 38 years, the soft-spoken, but infinitely focused Chinnadurai has had a singular mission.

“My ultimate goal is to find a cure for cancer,” Chinnadurai says. 

The quest began in 1974, when he came to Saint Louis University to work with eminent virologist Maurice Green, Ph.D., now professor and chair of SLU’s Institute for Molecular Virology. Green gave him a job after two years as a post-doctoral investigator.

“He was my mentor; he’s like a father.” Chinnadurai said. 

The admiration and respect are mutual. 

“He is a very disciplined person with an encyclopedic memory,” Green said, “and his work is remarkable.”

Chinnadurai has developed ways of treating cancer that Green believes will lead to some cures.

Bad gene, good gene

“He has five patents pending, all very promising,” Green said. “He focused on the common denominators among cancers, of which there are more than a hundred, what makes a cancer cell and what is its Achilles’ heel.”

To unravel the mysteries of cancer and find what regulates programmed cell death (apoptosis), Chinnadurai has studied animal epithelial cells infected with adenoviruses, a group of viruses that infect the epithelial cells of the respiratory tract. These viruses usually cause non-fatal illnesses, such as the common cold and bronchitis.

His team’s pioneering cancer research has made two important discoveries. Their first finding centered on the cancer-inducing adenovirus oncogene E1A, which normally causes a healthy cell to become cancerous. They found that this adenovirus gene possesses a unique and unexpected, seemingly contradictory activity: a region of the E1A oncoprotein suppresses cancerous transformation of primary epithelial cells and metastasis of cancer cells.

“Cancer cells grow forever; normal cells do not,” Chinnadurai explained. “One part of the adenovirus gene makes the cell become cancerous and the other part suppresses it because the virus needs both parts to efficiently multiply.”

Chinnadurai’s team has learned ways to exploit the suppression part of the gene, which effectively halts the cancer’s spread.

The team’s second discovery was the first member of a family of proteins known as the BH3-only family proteins that are essential for cells to die.  Small, therapeutic molecules that mimic the activity of the BH3-only proteins are now being intensely investigated as anti-cancer drugs.

“Chinnadurai’s work has broad general significance to many thousands,” said William Wold, chair of molecular microbiology and immunology at SLU. “He is a brilliant scientist who has made key discoveries that are widely appreciated throughout the world.”

A scientific rarity has made many of Chinnadurai’s discoveries possible: continuous research funding during his entire career, including multi-million dollar National Institutes of Health grants.

“I am gratified that I was able to compete against a number of very accomplished people and got grants for more than 30 years,” he said.

Paying it forward

Chinnadurai’s research papers on modern cell and molecular biology have been widely cited and he has mentored many medical students, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and visiting scientists from around the world.

Elizabeth Kostos-Polston, assistant professor of otolaryngology, head and neck surgery at SLU, wanted to work with the best in researching cancer caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).  She sought out Chinnadurai.

“It was a pretty big leap for someone of his stature to take someone like me – a nurse – into the lab,” said Kostos-Polston. “But he’s humble and not only interested in moving his work forward, but conscientious about growing young scholars.”

His efforts extend all the way to India.

Some of his high school classes were held under a shade tree.  He has built and helps to maintain a large, modern science laboratory housed in its own building.  The lab is named in honor of his late wife, Shanbagam Chinnadurai, who was a pediatrician.

Whenever Chinnadurai returns to India, he stays near the school in the house where he grew up.  It’s where his brother’s widow, Sakthivelan Kandiar, still lives. He helps take care of her.

“Farm income is not enough and getting girls married is expensive,” he says, noting he has three nieces and one nephew.

Old and new

Chinnadurai met his future wives during trips back to India; both marriages were arranged by friends in the absence of his father.  It is a tradition that neither of his two American-born sons embrace. 

“They were scared that I would ask them to marry someone that I wanted,” Chinnadurai smiled.

Elder son Sathya and wife Amy Wrenn, are both veterinarians at the University of California-Davis. They have a brand new daughter, Helena, who was born in March. Sivakumar, yet unmarried, is an ear, nose and throat surgeon at Vanderbilt University.

Chinnadurai remarried following a trip to Vaduvur in 1999.  It almost didn’t happen; then everything happened quickly.

“When I went to India, I had no idea I was going to get married,” Chinnadurai recalled.  “On the way to the airport, we stopped at a temple and I saw Vijayalakshmi. A month later, we were married.”

Friends say he’s a great family man, but Chinnadurai admits to being “mostly a workaholic”.

“While in school, I didn’t even go home for vacations; I’d stay around and do research.”

Not much has changed.

“He gardens, meditates and rides his bike two hours before work every day,” Green said, “but he’s here (in the lab) seven days a week.”

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.