Lakshmi Prabhu's first encounter with cancer was a personal one. Like many, she learned firsthand, and at a young age, what it was like to have a close family member diagnosed with the disease. What sets Prabhu apart is that the Indiana University School of Medicine doctoral student converted that experience into pharmacology research and, potentially, a career in drug discovery.
The trajectory that has allowed her to accomplish so much scientifically also led to one of IUPUI's top honors. Prabhu received the Dr. Charles R. Bantz Award for Excellence at the fourth annual Elite 50 dinner April 11. The award, presented by Graduate and Professional Student Government, goes to IUPUI's top graduate or professional student as judged by a pane of faculty and staff.
The Elite 50 recognizes outstanding graduate and professional students for their contributions to the campus and community. Award recipients represent the top one-half of 1 percent of the graduate and professional student body at IUPUI.
In Prabhu's case, the Elite 50 committee recognized her commitment to improving others' lives, both through cancer research and by creating a welcoming environment for other international students at IUPUI.
A native of Bombay, India, Prabhu is scheduled to defend her doctoral dissertation in May with the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology. Her research focused on colorectal and pancreatic cancer, both among the top three causes of death in the United States for men and women combined.
Prabhu's project first sought to identify whether a specific protein causes pancreatic and colorectal cancers. Step two in her research was identifying compounds that target the cancer-causing protein in hopes of slowing the growth of the disease.
"We introduced tumors in mice and then treated them with the drug to see if what we see in cell lines is also seen in the mouse models," Prabhu explained. "We saw promising results with the regimen we used.
"It's been very exciting because I've been able to do basic science research to understand how this protein is working and get into the intricacies of that. But then there's also this really cool pharmacological aspect to it to see what I can develop, go into drug discovery a little bit and see how that process works."
Prabhu's experience hasn't been limited to her own lab, however.
"I did an externship at Eli Lilly and got to really go behind the scenes of how a pharmaceutical company develops drugs. I started off with this screen of drugs. They do the same, obviously on a much bigger scale. They're probably screening for millions of compounds; I screened only 10,000 compounds. From the point they start doing that to the point it goes into the clinic, it can take a span of 10 years and more than a billion dollars spent on each drug," said Prabhu, who has spent four years on her current project. "There are some that make it right to the end and don't even make it to the clinic. They spend maybe a half-billion dollars and realize, 'It's working in mice, but it's not working in humans.' There's a lot of failure that goes into science, but then you get that one drug that can work to save so many different lives, and that makes it all worth it."
Turning experience into opportunity has become habit for Prabhu. She knows from her research with the IU School of Medicine that conducting early-phase research for drug discovery is a role she could dedicate herself to professionally. She also knows from her short time with Eli Lilly, however, that the chance to contribute to cancer research in other ways -- as a project manager or in regulatory affairs, for example -- might also be a good fit for her.
Finally, she knows from her background as an international student how important it is to make herself available to others who might need a helping hand.
"When I came to the States, I knew how much I benefited from having people who really helped me to orient myself, to guide me in a new place, to answer all my questions," said Prabhu, whose first stop in the U.S. was California, where she earned her master's degree at San Diego State University. "I really appreciated that. I developed a deep-rooted gratefulness for how much that helped me."
Prabhu is now an international graduate student welcome volunteer with the Office of International Affairs and a student ambassador for graduate student campus recruitment visits thanks to encouragement from Tara Hobson-Prater and Brandy Boyer-Wood of the IU School of Medicine's graduate programs and student success. Both volunteer roles allow her to make newcomers feel as welcome as she did upon her own arrival.
"I wasn't discriminated against when I got to the United States. I've had a very nice experience here, and I felt like I need to somehow give back to international students or even residents who come here to interview," said Prabhu. "I know how much it helped me to get a perspective on what grad school is like, what a Ph.D. is like. I've had the pleasure of interacting with really helpful people, and that instilled in me that the best way I could give back was, of course, to say thanks, but in this instance to also pay it forward."