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Guided By Gandalf
For a man whose wizardry lies in uncovering the catalytic mechanisms and molecular genetics of polyketide synthases, Chaitan Khosla draws on all the magic he can get. "I’m a Harry Potter aficionado. I know more about him than you care to know," answers Prof Khosla when asked what his interests are outside his research. An intensely private person, Khosla prefers spending his spare time with his family and reading J.K. Rowling books to his young children. "I really don’t read any other books," he admits sheepishly.
The Stanford Professor of Chemical Engineering, Chemistry and Biochemistry at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, is recognised for his work in an area that combines fundamental biochemistry and drug development. Many drugs, says Khosla, are derived from nature and made from micro-organisms like bacteria and fungi. "We have focused on understanding the chemistry of antibodies at a fundamental level and on learning how one can make better drugs," he says.
Strangely, biology—an integral part of his research work—did not interest him at all. "I hated it through school and college," he says in an amused tone. "I rediscovered biology at Caltech (where he came to pursue graduate studies after IIT Bombay) and rediscovered the link between chemistry and biology."
Four years ago, the Pune-born Khosla’s research interest turned to celiac sprue, an auto-immune disease. "One out of 100 people suffer from celiac sprue. It makes people insensitive to gluten (a protein found in cereals, especially wheat). This is not an allergy and is similar to diabetes where your immune system attacks itself and in this case it destroys the small intestine," explains Khosla. "The more I learnt, the more I became fascinated in translating our fundamental understanding of physics and chemistry into a science-driven organisation." Khosla and his wife Susanne Ebert Khosla started a non-profit organisation to translate the fundamental insights into practical insights for doctors. "People must pay attention to this disease," he says. "This is very common in India, particularly in young children, and can be devastating for them," he says. For every Harry Potter with celiac sprue, rest assured you have a Gandalf looking after you.