Please tell us about yourself. How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

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 theĀ Indiana University School of Medicinedoctoral student converted that experience into pharmacology research and, potentially, a career in drug discovery.

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Tell us about your work

A native of Bombay, India,her research is 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.”

What did you study?

I did my Bachelor’s degree (Biotechnology) from Mithibai College of Arts Chauhan Institute of Science and Post Graduate Diploma in Clinical Analysis from Sophia College For Women.

I then did a Master’s degree ( Molecular Biology ) from San Diego State University-California State University followed by PhD (Pharmacology) from Indiana University School of Medicine.

“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.”

Any exposure to the Drug Development industry?

“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.