By Akim Powell
Dr. Premalatha Balachandran, a senior scientist at the National Center for Natural Products Research (NCNPR) and School of Pharmacy at Ole Miss, is the first in her family to become a U.S. citizen and receive a Ph.D.
Traveling to the United States from India by herself was the most nerve-racking feeling she has ever had, although it was her dream to do research in the U.S. Her research now focuses on cancer drug discovery.
She moved to the U.S. 19 years ago after she received her Ph.D. in medical biochemistry from the University of Madras, one of the prestigious universities in India and started applying for Post-doctoral research positions. She eventually landed at Ole Miss.
Powell: So, where are you from?
Balachandran: I’m from India, more particularly Tamil Nadu, a state in the southern part of India. I’m from the coastal place, Chennai (previously called Madras) which is one of the four biggest metropolitan cities. I speak one of the ancient languages of the world, Tamil. After I got my doctorate degree with more than 20 publications in reputed journals, I dreamt to continue my research career here in the U.S. as I’ve always been fascinated with amazing research going on in several universities here. No one in my family has been to the United States before and no one has gotten a Ph.D. in my family either.
Powell: When did you move from India to the United States?
Balachandran: I moved here in 2000 and I was a bit nervous but excited because I was traveling to a new country all by myself. My first Post-doctoral research was at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. It was in Omaha, Nebraska. When I landed in Omaha in November of 2000, my first experience was to see several feet of snow which I have never seen in my life. I had to wear long snow boots and walk-in feet of snow to my lab every single day. It was a huge shock to me because my home town was very hot—around 80 degrees – 100 degrees. But on the other hand, I gained good lab experience and learned several molecular biological techniques at UNMC. In addition, I had new exposure and experience of living in the U.S.
Powell: What attracted you to the University of Mississippi?
Balachandran: My Ph.D. research was on the treatment of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), a form of liver cancer using Semecarpus Anacardium, a plant-based Siddha medicine. Siddha medicine is one of the traditional Indian systems of medicine. Since my background is from traditional herbal medicine/botanicals, I was looking for suitable research opportunities where I can continue to do natural products research. NCNPR is an internationally renowned research center and the only center in the United States that does extensive high-quality research on botanicals/natural products and that’s what attracted me to come here. I love nature and, in my opinion, nature has a cure for every disease. Therefore, I came to Ole Miss as a Postdoctoral researcher in 2002 and this is my 17th year here. I know it’s been a while. I am happy that I made that decision to move here for another reason. In the South, it is much warmer and I don’t have to deal with cold snowy days all throughout the winter. I got married in 2003 to my husband Karthikeyan Rathinavelu, who is a builder and the President/Owner of Thick and Thin Constructions. We are blessed with two boys. Our first son Keerthin was born in 2005 and our little one Sagan was born in 2011.
Powell: How long has it been since you started researching here?
Balachandran: Initially, I started with the immune stimulatory research program. Our lab had a patented/licensed product called Immulina, when consumed orally enhances the immune system. This is from Spirulina, a type of blue-green algae. I conducted pilot clinical trials on Immulina in healthy volunteers. The results from these studies were promising and this product is available in the market. Then we started a new venture in 2010 called “Cancer Drug Discovery Core” in collaboration with UMMC Cancer-Institute in Jackson, Mississippi. NCNPR and UMMC joined hands together to discover, test and develop new drugs to fight cancer.
Powell: So, how does the anti-cancer process work? What botanicals do you use?
Balachandran: The botanicals were selected based on the traditional knowledge of their use or available scientific reports or simply by random screening. Initially, we screened hundreds of extracts from various plants for their anti-cancer activity using targeted cancer signaling pathways. To name a few, we used licorice, turmeric, ginger, sage, etc., the most popular herbs. The plants that showed promising activity was further fractionated and tested. This process goes on until we see active compounds responsible for anti-cancer activity. Nature is so intelligent. An entire plant is more active than the pure compounds isolated from it. Many times, we come across this scenario that any single compound from an active plant is not so active as its parent. Multiple compounds need to be present together to exhibit their potential and we call this the “Synergistic effect.” After we developed this anti-cancer assay program and screened thousands of test agents, we discovered a plant-based “Anti-cancer formulation” which we filed an international patent application recently. Currently, we are testing this formulation against a type of skin cancer called melanoma.
Powell: So, you’ve found a cure for melanoma?
Balachandran: We still need to do a lot of research to determine the effective dose, to evaluate any toxic/side effects and to figure out its mechanism of action. Once we have all this information, if some pharmaceutical companies are interested to license and invest in the development of this drug, then it can go to clinical trials. Everything looks promising now and we are positive and hopeful.
Powell: So, there could be a cure for cancer?
Balachandran: Yes, for sure. We scientists will succeed and it is our ultimate goal.
Powell: How long has the cancer research been going on?
Balachandran: As I mentioned before, the research on cancer started in 2010. The initial few years before—I would say about six years—we spent in screening and selection of potential agents. For the next few years, we did the discovery process. During this time, the agents were subjected to various rigorous laboratory testing. In the last two to three years, we have been doing this pre-clinical research using skin cancer models.
Powell: So, what inspired your interest in cancer? Has anyone in your family died from cancer?
Balachandran: Fortunately, no one from my family had cancer. Thank God. But worldwide, cancer is one of the leading causes of death and so I developed my interest to develop a drug for cancer. Most of the drugs used for cancer treatment has serious side effects. Our goal is to identify and develop a less toxic approach for cancer therapy.
Powell: What is your day-to-day process in the lab?
Balachandran: There is no typical day for a scientist like me. Each day is very different from the other. Some days are successful when I see some exciting results from my experiments and some are depressing when I don’t get the expected results. In addition to lab work, we have lots of paperwork. We have to have documentation of every single experiment we do. On a daily basis, I work on the protocols, manuscripts, project reports and grant proposals. We always have a research discussion with colleagues and other researchers. Some days we will have meetings and seminars.
Powell: Do you love Mississippi?
Balachandran: Yes. I love it a lot. Mississippi, our “Magnolia State,” is blessed by mother nature. It is green everywhere and the landscape is beautiful. Whenever we visit big cities, my son asks why we don’t see anything green here. However, here, you see naturally grown huge trees and flowering plants all around. Our campus is beautiful. When we visit other campuses, we see how blessed we are. Our landscaping department is doing a great job.
Powell: Why Oxford?
Balachandran: I love our small university town. I always admire the people here who are very friendly and welcoming and show their hospitality. That is the reason we stayed here. When I got married in 2003, my husband and I were debating to decide if we should both stay in Oxford or move back to India. I convinced him to stay here as I liked Oxford and Ole Miss. Finally, he had to sacrifice his well-grown real estate business in India to move here permanently. We also loved the Oxford School District. We are so blessed with good teachers and administrators. They’re the reason for my son’s academic achievements. I give all the credit to the school and even though it’s a public school, the teachers are still great. He is a Lafayette County spelling-bee champion and also went to the state competition and won fifth place. He recently won a silver medal from the Genius Olympiad international science fair competition.
Powell: Other than your research, I see you have been heavily involved in several service activities. How did you get motivated?
Balachandran: My mother always tells me, “Through sincere prayers, you go to God. When you do service to the community, God comes to you. God loves anyone who does service to others.” This community has done so much for me. This country has given me the opportunity for me and my family and also my research and has helped me get this far.
Powell: Can you name organizations/committees you serve?
Balachandran: I serve as the “poll manager” at elections. I am the executive officer of the UM Staff Council, serving the position of Staff Scholarship Manager for the past 10 years being the longest-serving officer in the council. Currently, I am honored to serve as a Board of Directors for the United Way of Oxford and Lafayette, helping towards the welfare of our community and I am involved in reviewing grants for health and education. I served in different capacities for the Indian Association of North Mississippi as Cultural Secretary, Vice President and then President. I serve in Chancellor’s standing committees. For the scientific community, I judge science fairs for regional and state levels. I am the reviewer for reputed international journals and also organize the School of Pharmacy Poster session. I love to help. As a part of Della Davidson Elementary School PTO, I recently organized the “Reading is Fundamental” program.
Powell: I heard that you won an award from the university. What kind of award is that?
Balachandran: I received the “Outstanding Staff Award” from the University of Mississippi. This is the highest award offered at Ole Miss to any staff for their outstanding performance and service.
Powell: Would you ever go back to India?
Balachandran: Our families are back in India. We visit them every few years. My parents and my husband’s mother and siblings are there. We miss them a lot. But travel is very long. It takes about three flights and the travel time is around 30 hours. It is exhausting, especially for my children who get bored and tired. My sister also moved to the U.S. and her family lives in Chicago.
Powell: When you’re not busy, what do you do?
Balachandran: I love to cook. My husband always says “whenever you come from work, you go straight to the kitchen.” I like to spend time with my family. Keerthin is a Boy Scout and has developed a “Flag Retirement Drop Box” as his Eagle Scout Project, the first of its kind in Oxford, and has placed it at the Oxford Police Department, so our citizens can retire their old and worn American flags in a dignified manner. I enjoy working with him for his Boy Scout projects. Keerthin earned 96 merit badges so far and also does fundraising by selling thousands of camp cards for BSA. He has recently become an Eagle Scout. As a mentor, I guided Keerthin in an innovative Science fair project entitled “Styro-Carbon: An Effective Approach to Recycle Styrofoam.” This project won several awards at the Regional Science Fair, “Best of Fair” at Mississippi state fair. Also, he competed in the Genius Olympiad, an international science competition, where more than 1,500 participants from 79 countries presented their project and he won the silver medal and this medal brought so much pride to Oxford, Mississippi, as he was the only student to participate from Mississippi.
Powell: What do you instill in your children?
Balachandran: Study well. Education is a very important key to your successful future. I tell my kids that this is the age to work hard. My son is a freshman in high school and I tell him that these four years will determine your life plan. Be careful who you choose as your friends, because those friends can determine where your future will go as well.
Powell: What do you want people to know when they read this?
Balachandran: I want them to know that the research I’m doing is to help mankind. Hopefully, in the future, this anticancer formulation will be developed as a drug but it takes time. I thank my parents Mr. Balachandran and Mrs. Thirupuram Balachandran who have raised me with courage, given me this highest education and served as the backbone of what I am today. Also, I thank my husband and children who have been constantly supporting and encouraging me during every step of my life.