Pick a scribble, any scribble.
Raghuraman Kannan offers you a choice: Point at any sketch on the two dry erase boards in his office — both rife with numbers, letters, arrows and other scribbles — and he will tell you exactly which project it is affiliated with out of the 18 or so currently on his plate.
“Everything’s there,” he says. Your finger rests on a small drawing of what he later says is a meeting area, the possible layout of his soon-to-be new office on the fourth floor in the School of Medicine.
He envisions the space having a larger table with more chairs and a TV for video conferencing and brainstorming sessions, but for now he stands in a temporary office space on the building’s seventh floor with one wall being composed of a series of contiguous windows, casting a bright light on the boards on the opposite wall. “I told them I would like an office with windows. This is kind of an overdose,” Kannan quips.
In a way, to appreciate the dry erase boards and their seemingly organized chaos is to begin to appreciate how the mind of Kannan works, as numerous chains of ideas being represented in different color markers find a way to co-exist as small cogs of a machine that never stops for him or his team of 12 researchers and 18 partnering clinicians.
“There is no lag,” says third-year Ph.D. student Sandhya Saranathan. “He is always current with what we are doing and he is always open to accepting our ideas.”
Raghu, as most within the University of Missouri know him, writes on the board several times a day — often seven days a week — making tweaks here and there, before erasing them and starting over with the new modifications in mind, small notes that can have large impact at the right point in time in the future.
“He first started writing everything, but that got boring, so he just started scribbling everything, but we know where things are,” says Srikar Raman, a post-doctoral fellow on Kannan’s research team. “Everything that is not important is scrubbed off. Everything that is important stays there.”
Found in translation
Since 2012, a majority of those markings have been for projects that have been supported through the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation’s Translational Partnership Program, when MU joined elite company of just 16 schools to pair groundbreaking, collaborative research with practical business plans to turn ideas into tangible products.
With the unveiling of his latest project with Dr. Dean Hainsworth from the School of Medicine and others on a paper sensor for early detection of diabetic retinopathy, Kannan now has a record three projects that have been financially supported by the Coulter program in which he serves as a principal investigator. The key to his success?
“He has the ability to recognize unique opportunities that need a solution and has the ability to come with really innovative ways of solving problems,” says Jerry Parker, the associate dean for research at the School of Medicine, who also serves as the co-director of the program.
“While pursuing science with excellent fundamental depth, he always has target applications as his ultimate goal,” added Jinglu Tan, the James C. Dowell Professor and Chair of the Department of Engineering who also serves as the principal investigator for the program. “His work embodies the type of research we want to promote in bioengineering and at the University.”
Kannan, who serves as an associate professor of radiology and biological engineering as the Michael J. and Sharon B. Bukstein Chair in Cancer Research, says that he’s always looking at a specific formula when determining whether to pitch the idea to the Coulter Foundation.
“What we call it is an innovation attached with a clinical need along with a good business,” he says. “I chose all my projects based on that. The Coulter Foundation matches with my research portfolio.”
Walking through Kannan’s lab in the med school, one will find labels on a variety of pieces of equipment that has been used to blaze trails in the field of nanotechnology, remnants of the move that he and his team took from the Alton Building north of campus to the med school, located on campus, this past December.
After working on the design and development of nanomedicine drugs and metal-based radioactive pharmaceuticals in the Alton Building for 14 years, Kannan welcomed a change of scenery that would make it much easier to collaborate with clinicians and other colleagues at the School of Medicine, College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources and the College of Engineering. Being in a closer physical space to other researchers has already started to pay dividends in the formation of more collaborative partnerships. “Oh, yeah,” he says of his new digs. “This is really good.”
Searching for ‘a magic bullet’
To a lay person, Kannan’s work can seem extremely complex, so he breaks down his work to a highly relatable topic: the fight against cancer. The goal is to send more drugs to a cancer without putting patients’ lives in jeopardy through high amounts of toxicity from the drugs themselves.
“That is the first translation that you think of, so a nanoparticle will do what you’re asking it to do,” Kannan says. “It will take more drugs to the cancer and it will be less toxic to the patient because it is more targeted — what we call a ‘magic bullet.’”
He adds that a regular injection of a traditional cancer drug may only effect 1-2 percent of the actual targeted area in the body, whereas if you put a drug in a nanoparticle, it can carry thousands of drugs to a specific cancer tumor without actually drugging the patient.
Kannan’s first Coulter project, which initially received funding in 2012, focused on a gold nanorod-based histochemistry (GNR-HC) platform that can help identify and quantify an array of target biomarkers in tumor tissues in ways that are much more superior than previous methods. These nanoplatforms, which he co-created with Dr. Gerald Arthur from the School of Medicine, represent the biggest scientific breakthrough in all of Kannan’s Coulter research projects because “we can use it for any cancer type of choice and it can be used for all cancer patients across the world.”
In the second Coulter project, Kannan teamed up with Dr. Amolak Singh in the School of Medicine to create a molecular probe (RTN-Scan) for the early detection of recurrent and metastatic breast cancer.“I’ve always felt that the research that I need to do should get a product out.”
Through many talks with his Ph.D. mentor at the Indian Institute of Science, S.S. Krishnamurthy, Kannan come to the realization that he wanted any research that he did to be “useful” to a large group of people at all times.
“I’ve always felt that the research that I need to do should get a product out,” Kannan says. “I feel like at the end of the day, whatever I do, it goes back to tax payers in an indirect way as a product… something to increase the quality of their life.”
Rooted in commerce
Given his accomplishments, it may be hard to fathom Kannan as a once-mediocre student when growing up in the southern Indian city of Madurai — but he was. As an only child of a judicial department worker and a part-time college lecturer, he had a cousin named Jegan, who was convinced Raghu should join forces with him as a chemist.
Jegan had an entrepreneurial spirit that fueled a startup company that would develop chemical formulas for various animal feeds in India. He had a chemistry lab that he wanted Raghu (who grew up with his cousin always around) to one day work at and oversee. That was the plan until a motorcycle accident took Jegan’s life in 1989 as Jegan was approaching his 30th birthday. “When he died, I didn’t know what option I would have,” Kannan says.
He started putting all of his focus on academics. Before long, Kannan found himself in the top 1 percent of his class at Madurai Kamaraj University, before heading to get his master’s degree in chemistry at the ultra-competitive Indian Institute of Technology.
Kannan also began to embrace the fact that having a good nose for business was in his blood, thinking back to how an uncle of his held a municipal job while still running a bakery and a pharmacy on the side. A young Raghu would spend many summer days at the pharmacy, calculating how much money one could make through different pricing options. So far, Kannan has co-founded four start-up companies at MU, including Nanoparticle Biochem, Inc.., and Shasun-NBI, LLC, which have both raised more than $1 million in investments. In addition, he holds approximately 20 patents (both approved and pending).
Kannan met his wife, Anandhi Upendran, in 1995, when the two were both second-year Ph.D. students at the Indian Institute of Science. Shortly upon graduation in 1999, they married and set their sights on finding a university that placed a heavy emphasis on translational research to allow for a smooth transition into the biomedical field. That school was MU in the spring of 2000.
“He’s open for any research opportunities. He always looks at the positive aspect of any person or any project,” says Upendran, who has been a critical part of her husband’s team as the director of biomedical innovation at the MU Institute for Clinical and Translational Science.
Anandhi says that Raghu’s analytical thinking does not rest when inside their Columbia home. “If he has to do something, he will really plan for it: ‘OK, I have to do it at this time and I have to do it sequentially.’” She says that when they visit family in India he tends to be a little more laid back, but when at work in India and the U.S., punctuality is his right-hand companion.
Raghu and Anandhi have a 9-year-old son, Saathvik, who insists on mirroring Mom and Dad — right down to the long shirt and pants that make up his usual wardrobe and the lab that he has set up at their house. “He gets fascinated by the kind of research we do,” Anandhi says.
“‘Do I look like a professor?’” Kannan recalls from a frequent conversation he has with his son. “I said, ‘You should look like a kid.’ ‘No, no, I should like a professor, because I want to become like you.’ I said ‘OK, this is the age you think that I am good.’”
Raghu, who is an enthusiast for all Apple gadgets, shows a video on his iPhone of a recent PowerPoint presentation that Saathvik gave at an Indian community center on the Hindu god Krishna, an initiative that the fourth grader came up with all on his own. “It was totally amazing to see him like that,” Kannan says.
Looking down the road
Kannan’s latest Coulter project came from a family issue in India — his father-in-law, who has Type 1 diabetes, has lost 50 percent of his vision in his left eye due to malady called diabetic retinopathy (DR).
“Why is this not being caught early? You cannot ask patients to come every month into monitor them. How do you stop this?” he says.
These questions drove him to reach out to collaborators in India and later to Dr. Hainsworth and Dr. Uzma Khan at the School of Medicine to devise a urine-activated color paper — the most affordable material available — sensor that could alert a user if the biomarker linked to DR is present based on a change in the color’s intensity.
Kannan already has several other projects brewing for consideration for the Coulter program, to be revealed down the line, most likely with a no-rock-left-unturned presentation with his team of students and associates by his side (“We’re pretty much involved in everything and I think that gives us a better education than just staying a in a lab,” says fifth-year Ph.D. student Chuck Caldwell).
Those who work with Kannan tend to call him a visionary, fitting for a man who enjoyed chess as a child and the heightened foresight needed to excel in the game. In his mind, there’s always an open play, a new opportunity, if one is patient and prepared.
“If he comes up with a project, he knows what is the end product we are looking for,” says Ajit Zambre, a research associate on Kannan’s team. “In order to get to that end product, he has really thought about how he should go about and what steps should be followed within a desired period of time.”
“He looks at things which probably will be important like 10 years later and he starts targeting them now with the technology we have now or what we develop in this lab,” says fifth-year Ph.D. student Dhananjay Suresh.
So what exactly is the key to his success? Jerry Parker is a good person to ask.
“At the heart of the matter, he’s just really a nice person that people want to work with and spend time with,” Parker says. “He inspires people to want to work on the things that interest him.”