Copyright © 2003 Ajai Sehgal
Dr. Surendra Nath Sehgal PhD was born in Khushab, India which is a very small village in what is now Pakistan. His father, Sita Ram Sehgal, owned and ran a pharmaceutical factory which produced homeopathic medications, Aspirin, syringes and other medication which was distributed all over India. With the troubles caused by the division of India into India and Pakistan, his family abandoned the pharmaceutical business in Khushab in 1947 and re-established it in New Delhi.
Motivated by is father's business and his desire to help as many people as possible through research, at age 16, Suren began his scientific studies at the Banaris Hindu University in Banaris, India where he received a B. Pharm in 1952 and his M. Pharm in 1953. At age 21, he began his PhD studies at Bristol University in England where he received his PhD in 1957.
After completing his PhD, Suren was offered and accepted a post-doc fellowship at the National Research Council of Canada where he met fellow Ayerst alumni Dr. Dieter Kleupful and Dr. Kartar Sing. According to Dieter, "When we met the first time in Ottawa at the NRC we roomed together at the formidable Madame LaRivière’s place and did lots of "illegal" cooking in her basement. Those months were great fun and remained part of our anecdotal history." Suren became a Canadian citizen, something that he was always proud of. He told his children. "While you were born Canadian, and take being Canadian for granted, I CHOSE to become Canadian after careful and scientific consideration. It was a good choice."
In 1959 Dieter returned to Europe to accept a job in Italy, while Suren was recruited by Dr. Roger Gaudry the Director of Research at Ayerst-McKenna-Harrison in Montreal. He joined Dr. Claude Vézina's microbiology team with Dr. Harold Baker. Suren convinced Kartar Sing to join Ayerst later in 1959 and also recruited his college mate from Banaris, Dr. Suman Rakhit who joined in 1960 in bio-chemistry. Shortly there after, Roger Gaudry recruited Dr. Jehan Bagli in chemistry. Suren returned to India briefly in December 1962 and returned to Canada with his life long companion and wife Uma Kapur. Suren and Dieter met again in 1963 at the International Congress of Microbiology in Montreal. At that occasion Suren suggested that Dieter should come back to Canada and join the microbiology group at Ayerst. He arranged a meeting with Roger Gaudry. Two years later, Dieter met Gaudry again in Paris where he was encouraged to join Ayerst which he did in 1965. Dieter Kleupful still lives in Montreal and is the last surviving member of the Ayerst Microbiology group that was so instrumental to the discovery of important microbial metabolites of which Rapamycin in one. Harold Baker, Kartar Singh and Claude Vézina have left before and now Suren has gone. The chemists Suman and Jehan have retired and now live in Toronto.
Suren, Suman, Kartar, Jehan and Dieter became life long friends. While they worked together at Ayerst, their families grew up together and became closer than blood. The friendships he formed over the years with his colleagues at Ayerst were no small part of Suren’s dedication to the company.
In 1964, a Canadian scientific expedition traveled to Easter Island (or Rapa Nui, as it is known by locals) to gather plant and soil samples. The expedition shared their soil samples with the Microbiology team at Ayerst's research laboratories in where in 1972 Suren, identified and isolated a new bio-chemical compound that contained potent anti-fungal properties. Suren and his team quickly discovered that the compound also suppressed the immune system. He sent a sample of the drug to the National Cancer Institute for testing where it was discovered that the drug had "fantastic activity" against solid tumors. Unfortunately, due to corporate priorities, management did not want to pursue drugs based on the compound.
Dieter left Ayerst in 1975 to join Institute Armand-Frappier. In 1983, Ayerst shut down the facilities in Montreal, laying off 95% of the staff and moved a small contingent to Princeton NJ. Suman and Kartar left Ayerst at this time to pursue other research, while Suren and Jehan moved with the company. The old gang remained fast friends and kept in touch with visits and family gatherings over the years. In 1994, Suren became a citizen of the United States (actually dual citizen of Canada and the United States), another careful scientific choice of which he was very proud.
Suren knew that shutting down the Montreal facility meant that he would no longer have access to the large-scale fermenters needed to produce Rapamycin, and therefore his supply would dwindle. So before the facility closed, Suren prepared a large-scale batch to bring with him to Princeton. Rapamycin’s reputation continued to gain momentum, as MD/PhD students who were combing the literature looking for thesis ideas in immunosuppression discovered the reported potent effects of this drug. Consequently, Rapamycin continued to gain momentum as research results continued to be published.
Suren persisted in his efforts to develop drugs based on the Rapamycin compound, resurrecting the research in 1987 with the backing of new management after the merger of Wyeth and Ayerst. As a result, development of Rapamune as an immunosuppressant began by Suren and his staff. By 1998, clinical studies on Rapamune were nearing completion and the New Drug Application was filed with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on December 15 of that year. On February 1st, 1999, the FDA assigned “priority review status” to the application, and on July 27th, FDA’s Advisory Committee made a unanimous recommendation for approval of Rapamune. FDA approval was received on September 15, 1999, only 9 months after submission of the application. Approvals in Canada and around the world followed and Rapamune is now worth billions of dollars to the company. The drug is also used under license by Johnson and Johnson to coat stents used in heart patients to prevent subsequent arterial blockage due to restenosis. Rapamune is also used to prevent rejection of transplanted pancreatic islets - a possible cure for diabetes. Investigation continues into its usefulness in treating tumors.
After moving to Princeton in 1983, Suren and Uma met a whole new set of friends and colleagues at Wyeth-Ayerst, many of whom have become as close as family. Suren and Uma “adopted” his research assistants, including Sue Maloney, who so fondly referred to him as “Dad”. He would frequently gather them up saying “come come, Uma is making us lunch today”.
In the early days, Suren shared a lab with one of his fellow Canadian colleagues, Ping Eng. Ping provided many hours of laughter with his anecdotes and philosophies on life. There was never a dull moment if Ping was around.
During Suren’s tenure in Princeton, many good times were shared and many friendships were cemented. He possessed a warmth and caring quality that endeared him to so many. At work, Suren’s nurturing abilities made him everyone’s dad, brother or friend. It was this quality that made an indelible mark on everyone he met.
Suren always treated people with warmth and decency regardless of their opinion; however, he never shirked away from the spirited debate necessary for scientific progress. In return, he received the utmost respect as a scientist, colleague and friend.
In 1998, Suren was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic colon cancer after a routine colonoscopy. He completed his work with Rapamune and retired to be close to his grand children in Seattle, Washington in 1999 after 40 years of service to Ayerst. Suren continued to work on Rapamune to the very end as a consultant to Ayerst, completing work on his last publication a few weeks before his death. During treatment at the Starzl Liver Institute at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Suren had the chance to meet kidney transplant patients who were surviving thanks to his drug, Rapamune. Even after major liver surgery, he was re-invigorated by what he saw. He was so pleased that his life’s work was saving lives. He believed that even his own life was extended as he took Rapamune to stave off the cancer that had spread to his liver, experimenting on himself. The tumors in his liver were arrested and never grew.
Suren spent his last few weeks surrounded by friends and family including Suman and Jehan. The cancer that had spread to his lungs was unstoppable even with Rapamune. On the 21st of January, 2003, Suren left this world, leaving behind his wife of 41 years, two loving sons, two loving daughters-in-law, five loving grand-children, many, many friends and a whole planet of thankful transplantation patients and colleagues. We celebrate his life and his contribution to mankind.