Aleem Gangjee is the dynamo at Duquesne University


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Seeking a master's degree at the India Institute of Technology in 1967, Aleem Gangjee soon realized the advantages American scientists had when it came to getting basic chemistry supplies in his homeland.

The young Mr. Gangjee would travel four hours to Calcutta, where he'd spend hours waiting, negotiating, even begging for a meager supply of ethanol, a basic alcohol solvent needed for laboratory experiments. It's akin to a concrete company unable to buy sand or a restaurant, flour.

His return trip took four more hours on public transportation -- and sometimes without ethanol. And even if he got the solvent, he and his colleagues then had to send their lab results to America for analysis.

There was definitely an easier way, he concluded.

Emigrate to America.

Nearly four decades later, and now a longtime American citizen and scientist, Mr. Gangjee has turned that earlier decision into a wildly successful academic career in Pittsburgh.

In 1998, Mr. Gangjee was named a distinguished professor of medicinal chemistry at the Duquesne University School of Pharmacy. The internationally renowned scientist has produced anti-cancer drugs and synthetic medicinal chemistry and used computer-assisted drug design to synthesize multi-acting anti-tumor agents that the university now is working to get to market.

Now at 63, he has 74 research projects under way in his office and lab in the Richard King Mellon Hall of Science, with a staff of 14 students, including post-doctoral fellows.

The five active National Institutes of Health Research Project Grants, known as "RO1," that he holds -- in an era of dwindling federal funding for research -- may best reveal his levels of achievement. Only 18 percent of all grant applications and about 7 percent of applications for the NIH's oldest and most prestigious RO1 grants were awarded in 2011, the NIH states.

Mr. Gangjee is a "principal investigator" in five grants awarded in his name to Duquesne since 2011.. The NIH grants totaling $5.2 million put him in rarefied air. Only a small percentage of the top 20 percent of NIH principal investigators nationwide hold five active grants, NIH spokesman Renate Myles said.

During his 33-year career, Duquesne has received 29 grants in his name from various sources that total more than $15 million. He also holds 24 U.S. patents for medicinal compounds he's developed with more than 130 articles published in major journals.

Still, Mr. Gangjee says he considers teaching to be as important as research.

At Duquesne he's received three faculty Presidential Awards for Excellence, one for teaching and two for scholarship. And people who know him agree. He's a polite and respectful gentleman who can reduce difficult science to everyday language.

"He's very personable. He's very approachable. Students like that about him. And he's a humble individual," said Doug Bricker, dean of the Duquesne School of Pharmacy.

The School of Pharmacy has used Mr. Gangjee in advertisements that note that it ranks third among private pharmacy schools for NIH research funding, with him leading the pack.

"There's not a student who graduates from this school who doesn't know about Dr. Gangjee," Mr. Bricker said.

Relaxation? Not for Mr. Gangjee.

"He teaches a full teaching load and if anything, he's increasing his activity, not slowing down," said Alan Seadler, Duquesne's associate academic vice president for research. "He's one of our extraordinary faculty."

Each Monday morning, Mr. Gangjee said, he awakens with an "ah-hah," happy to hurry back to the lab or office, where he also spent a portion of his weekend. "He's extremely prolific," Mr. Seadler said. "There is an enormous quantity of papers he puts out and he's cutting edge with his compounds, and he stays there, and he's ahead of the edge in some cases."

• • •

Mr. Gangjee, the son of a successful Indian stockbroker in Calcutta, soon fell in love with organic chemistry. He left India and earned his doctoral degree in medicinal chemistry from the University of Iowa. An early interest in cancer intensified when his grandmother died of breast cancer in India. Landing a National Cancer Institute training grant, he did post-doctoral work at the State University of New York in Buffalo, where the research focus was cancer.

"I was fascinated why a cell becomes an outlaw and the killer of other cells around it," Mr. Gangjee said. "It's like a Western movie with a guy shooting up nice people."

Upon completion of post-doctoral studies, he headed to Duquesne because, he said, it offered "the perfect balance of teaching and research."

Students might disagree, but Mr. Gangjee says organic chemistry is simple -- enjoyable -- if taught correctly. Building blocks that fit together in predictable ways allow him to create new molecules and medications or enhance existing treatments. "It's the crux of creation," he said. "It's what everything is made of."

And the beauty of American research, he said, is the speed in which an idea can be produced and tested. "You can have 25 ideas and do them in 25 days. That's incredible."

• • •

A favorite method of attacking disease is what he describe as a Trojan Horse, in which a look-alike molecule tricks its way inside enzymes of cancer cells then dock in the space reserved for a metabolized form of folic acid, which is a needed cell nutrient. The cell will die without it.

Another interest is combining multiple cancer drugs or medications into a single drug to make treatment more efficient and less toxic.

"It's only a matter of time before they move to market," Mr. Bricker said of his compounds. "He's working at synthesizing novel drugs to combat one our most dreaded disease -- cancer."

Some might argue that such goals are "pie in the sky," Mr. Gangjee said. "But you have to have pie in the sky before you can put it on the table.

"I like interesting ideas that are useful, but the goal is to get these into the clinic so that a father can go be with his child or a grandmother can be with her grandchild," he said, recalling the death of his grandmother. "That's the aim of what drives us."

But there's another reason for such productivity and success.

When people ask him what he does, he replies: "I design molecules just for fun. I love doing it just like people love playing golf."

Health@post-gazette.com

Seeking a master's degree at the India Institute of Technology in 1967, Aleem Gangjee soon realized the advantages American scientists had when it came to getting basic chemistry supplies.

The young Mr. Gangjee would travel four hours to Calcutta, where he'd spend hours waiting, negotiating, even begging for a meager supply of ethanol, a basic alcohol solvent needed for laboratory experiments. It's akin to a concrete company unable to buy sand or a restaurant, flour.

His return trip took four more hours on public transportation -- and sometimes without ethanol. And even if he got the solvent, he and his colleagues then had to send their lab results to America for analysis.

There was definitely an easier way, he concluded.

Immigrate to America.

Nearly four decades later, and now a longtime American citizen and scientist, Mr. Gangjee has turned that earlier decision into a wildly successful academic career in Pittsburgh.

In 1998, he was named a distinguished professor of medicinal chemistry at the Duquesne University School of Pharmacy. The internationally renowned scientist has produced anti-cancer drugs and synthetic medicinal chemistry and used computer-assisted drug design to synthesize multi-acting anti-tumor agents that the university now is working to get to market.

Now 63, he has 74 research projects under way in his office and lab in the Richard King Mellon Hall of Science, with a staff of 14 students, including post-doctoral fellows.

The five active National Institutes of Health Research Project Grants, known as "RO1," that he holds -- in an era of dwindling federal funding for research -- may best reveal his levels of achievement. Only 18 percent of all grant applications and about 7 percent of applications for the NIH's oldest and most prestigious RO1 grants were awarded in 2011, the NIH states.

Mr. Gangjee is a "principal investigator" in five grants awarded in his name to Duquesne since 2011. The NIH grants totaling $5.2 million put him in rarefied air. Only a small percentage of the top 20 percent of NIH principal investigators nationwide hold five active grants, NIH spokesman Renate Myles said.

During his 33-year career, Duquesne has received 29 grants in his name from various sources that total more than $15 million. He also holds 24 U.S. patents for medicinal compounds he's developed with more than 130 articles published in major journals.

Still, Mr. Gangjee says he considers teaching to be as important as research.

At Duquesne he's received three faculty Presidential Awards for Excellence, one for teaching and two for scholarship. And people who know him agree. He's a polite and respectful gentleman who can reduce difficult science to everyday language.

"He's very personable. He's very approachable. Students like that about him. And he's a humble individual," said Doug Bricker, dean of the Duquesne School of Pharmacy.

The School of Pharmacy has used Mr. Gangjee in advertisements that note that it ranks third among private pharmacy schools for NIH research funding, with him leading the pack.

"There's not a student who graduates from this school who doesn't know about Dr. Gangjee," Mr. Bricker said.

Relaxation? Not for Mr. Gangjee.

"He teaches a full teaching load and if anything, he's increasing his activity, not slowing down," said Alan Seadler, Duquesne's associate academic vice president for research. "He's one of our extraordinary faculty."

Each Monday morning, Mr. Gangjee said, he awakens with an "ah-hah," happy to hurry back to the lab or office, where he also spent a portion of his weekend. "He's extremely prolific," Mr. Seadler said. "There is an enormous quantity of papers he puts out and he's cutting edge with his compounds, and he stays there, and he's ahead of the edge in some cases."

Love of organic chemistry

Mr. Gangjee, the son of a successful Indian stockbroker in Calcutta, fell in love with organic chemistry. He left India and earned his doctoral degree in medicinal chemistry from the University of Iowa. An early interest in cancer intensified when his grandmother died of breast cancer in India. Landing a National Cancer Institute training grant, he did post-doctoral work at the State University of New York in Buffalo, where the research focus was cancer.

"I was fascinated why a cell becomes an outlaw and the killer of other cells around it," Mr. Gangjee said. "It's like a Western movie with a guy shooting up nice people."

Upon completion of post-doctoral studies, he headed to Duquesne because, he said, it offered "the perfect balance of teaching and research."

Students might disagree, but Mr. Gangjee says organic chemistry is simple -- enjoyable -- if taught correctly. Building blocks that fit together in predictable ways allow him to create new molecules and medications or enhance existing treatments. "It's the crux of creation," he said. "It's what everything is made of."

And the beauty of American research, he said, is the speed in which an idea can be produced and tested. "You can have 25 ideas and do them in 25 days. That's incredible."

'Every tool in the tool kit'

A favorite method of attacking disease is what he describe as a Trojan Horse, in which a look-alike molecule tricks its way inside enzymes of cancer cells then dock in the space reserved for a metabolized form of folic acid, which is a needed cell nutrient. The cell will die without it.

Another interest is combining multiple cancer drugs or medications into a single drug to make treatment more efficient and less toxic.

Sherry F. Queener, associate dean of the Graduate School at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, said Mr. Gangjee not only is a good scientist and person, but also uses sound reasoning, good hypotheses while collaborating with other scientists to make the research go faster.

"Some of the compounds he's made are some of the best in the field," she said. "He has a very productive lab, and I think he is world class."

She said he also understands what's needed to attack cancer or infection and identifies a drug target in those cells. "Then he uses every tool in the tool kit to best design a drug to attack that target," Ms. Queener said.

Mr. Bricker said it's only a matter of time before Mr. Gangjee's compounds move to market. "He's working at synthesizing novel drugs to combat one of our most dreaded diseases -- cancer."

Some might argue that such goals are "pie in the sky," Mr. Gangjee said. "But you have to have pie in the sky before you can put it on the table.

"I like interesting ideas that are useful, but the goal is to get these into the clinic so that a father can go be with his child or a grandmother can be with her grandchild," he said, recalling the death of his grandmother. "That's the aim of what drives us."

But there's another reason for such productivity and success.

When people ask him what he does, he replies: "I design molecules just for fun. I love doing it just like people love playing golf."

health

Health@post-gazette.com.


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