'Superstar' researcher draws attention for cancer work

Frank Radosevich II

When Dr. Donald Rager was tapped in December 1999 to be the interim dean at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria, the medical school presented him with a list of six problems they wanted the new dean to tackle.

High on the list was the level of medical research and experiments conducted by the college. Or rather, the lack thereof.

"The research efforts in Peoria were anemic," said Rager, a longtime Peoria doctor specializing in internal medicine, "and we didn't have a plan for the development of a robust research program. That was very high on the list of problems."

Shortly after his hiring, Rager set about creating an advisory committee, comprised of the college's senior administrators and department heads, to address the school's weak research endeavors. Though presented with a difficult task, it did not take long before the committee found a potential solution.

A few months later, in early 2000, a Texas-based researcher named Jasti Rao made a presentation at the Peoria campus. Then a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Rao spoke about breaking down cancer research around four basic mechanisms that relate to the spread and growth of cancer instead of focusing on details on particular growths.

The approach, along with Rao's personal ambition and caliber of work, wowed Rager. He began reading Rao's papers and learning more about his background and rising profile in the field of cancer research. Eventually, the school decided to bring him into its fold.

And, as chance would have it, Rao was looking to move.

"This was an absolutely extraordinary magical moment that he should come along at a time when we were talking about how to forward the research efforts in Peoria," Rager said.

In Houston, Rao worked on brain tumors but did so in a clinical setting. Because he holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry and no medical degree, it was likely he would not head up his own department. On top of that, his studies were being limited to brain tumors only, whereas Rao wanted to branch out and investigate cancers growing in the prostate, breasts and lungs.

Then in July 2000, Rao returned to Peoria and laid out what would be needed to draw him to the medical college.

"The specifics amounted to about a million and a half (dollars)," Rager said with a laugh. The sum covered new equipment and supplies as well as salaries for Rao and his research team. "And I said, 'Jasti, I want to recruit you in the worst way, so I'm going to try to find a million and a half, but keep your fingers crossed.' "

The money may seem like a lot, but in the nearly eight years since he arrived, Rao, a lean man with silvery hair who speaks with a thick Indian accent, has brought in roughly $16 million in grant funding to the area.

His lab, which has brought on 20 to 30 staffers, publishes about 10 to 20 papers a year, and Rao, now senior associate dean for research at the college, has secured seven RO1 grants - prestigious research grants doled out by the National Institutes of Health. Several million dollars in state funding also has been funneled to his research.

"In the world of brain tumors, everybody recognizes his name," said Dr. Ian McCutcheon, a professor of neurosurgery at M.D. Anderson and a former colleague of Rao's.

His name or face may not be known to the average citizen, but his advances in the field of medical research have been raising the profile of Peoria. Attracting talent, cash and name recognition, Rao's extensive cancer research continues to bolster the city's academic reputation.

"The bottom line is that this place is growing and we have the right people in the right places," said Dr. Dzung Dinh, a professor of neurosurgery at the medical school. Dinh, who lobbied the college heavily to hire Rao, said before his arrival little was being done in terms of cancer research. "He's the catalyst for all this growth."

In the coming weeks, the Illinois Medical Center, a $28 million project, will take shape.

Complex in nature, Rao's main work investigates the invasive characteristics of malignant brain tumor cells, which infiltrate normal brain tissue and can spread throughout the brain. By manipulating proteases, or enzymes, Rao hopes to inhibit a tumor's growth or possibly shrink it all together.

The experiments are limited to lab mice, but the hope is one day to bring them to clinical trials with patients. He is also investigating umbilical cord blood stem cells that could one day cure cancer and heal spinal injuries.

Part of Rao's success comes from his tireless work ethic, which involves long days and occasional work on the weekends.

"I get up usually around 3 a.m. and go to bed around 10 p.m.," Rao said with a straight face. But instead of wearing him down, his schedule seems to empower him. "If I don't enjoy it, I don't work," he said.

Dr. Sara Rusch, current dean at the medical college, said the campus is focusing its research in certain fields instead of trying to be all things to all people. Unlike the University of Chicago or M.D. Anderson, the school cannot afford to maintain research efforts in a variety of topics. By carving out a niche in cancer research, the college has a better chance at gaining recognition for its work.

"I think that's the dream," she said. "Over the next five, 10 years it should blossom."

That's a vision that many share, including state Rep. David Leitch, who called Rao a "superstar," albeit one who can walk the streets virtually unnoticed.

"I tell him and laugh - but I'm not really joking - that I look forward to when he wins the Nobel Prize," he said.

Leitch, R-Peoria, said officials are still moving toward establishing a world-class cancer center that would give scientists like Rao great laboratories and facilities for their research. With better tools at their fingertips, Leitch said the future is full of possibilities.

"Who knows what he'll do next," Leitch said.

Frank Radosevich II can be reached at (309) 686-3142 or fradosevich@pjstar.com.