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Dr. Jasti Rao speaks softly but wields worldwide influence in cancer research

Dr. Jasti Rao grew up on a farm in India, an only child who learned early on what hard work was and how it was necessary to achieve success.

That ethic has stuck with this Ph.D. who rises every day at 3 a.m. and works well into each evening. You won't find him at many civic club meetings unless he's the speaker and he doesn't have time to serve on boards of not for profit agencies. Except for when he gets the chance to work in his garden during summer months, his hobby is his work.

That work, however, could someday mean more to the average Peorian as well as every human on the planet than the work of all those boards put together.

Today Rao has a resume that is 76 pages long, including a listing of the 250-plus articles he's written for various journals, an accounting of the times he has reviewed research grant proposals for others as well as those he's written himself for the research he and his team are doing at the Cancer Research Center at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria.

There is no quit in him. That, he acknowledges, is the secret to the successes that have made him known in the medical research community worldwide. It extends into everything he does.

"I am persistent, hard working and I never quit," he said. "I take everything I do as a challenge. I even want to be the number one garden grower."

Rao's global reputation was one reason he was recruited to Peoria a decade ago by Dr. Donald Rager, now-retired regional dean of the College of Medicine. Rager had been directed by the school's board to develop a research component, which it had been lacking.

At the time Rao was teaching and doing cancer research at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He came to Peoria to make a presentation at UICOMP about cancer research.

"Less than a month later I got a call that I was going to be recruited to do research here in Peoria. So I came and met with Dr. Rager. My wife asked me that night if I thought it was serious and I said that when I came here to speak I talked with Dr. Rager for only a few minutes. This time, he spent the whole day with me so I was sure they were serious," he said.

Rao said he was planning a move anyway since he knew that his position in Texas could never grow into one of leadership. "So I knew if the school here was able to meet my needs I was very interested," he said.

Those needs included that he be made head of the research department, be given adequate research facilities and the chance to recruit top researchers to the Peoria campus. He also wanted the chance to research other forms of cancer; before then he'd worked almost exclusively on brain tumors. While that work made him known in research circles around the world, "I wanted to do more," he said.

His needs met, including enough of a budget to pay researchers that he would recruit, Rao set out to build what has become a successful research center.

One part of the success is a patent on a process discovered by Rao and his team that, in a nutshell, inhibits the growth of tumors and kills cancer cells. The drug isn't ready for human trials yet but an Indian company has the license from the school to begin testing its toxicity and determine if clinical trials are possible.

He now has more than 20 cancer research associates at the center. Medical doctors are on the research faculty and the culture at the school has changed from being strictly medical practice oriented to also include research.

He has been the catalyst in bringing more than $26 million in research grants to the school and more than 150 of the 250 articles he has authored have been since he arrived in Peoria in the winter of 2001.

So respected is the work being done by Rao and his group the new $13 million Cancer Research Center was built, opening late last year. It was funded with money raised through a consortium of Peoria businesses, business leaders and local, state and federal elected officials. Rao was instrumental in getting the consortium started and he worked closely with its co-chairs, Glen Barton, former chairman of Caterpillar Inc., and Ray LaHood, at the time a member of Congress and now U.S. Secretary of Transportation.

Another key person in getting the Research Center going, he said, was former State Sen. George Shadid, whose son died from a brain tumor several years ago.

Rao said it was cancer in his own family and among friends that got him started in researching the second leading cause of death in the country. Before that he'd worked in neurobiology, which had given him the knowledge of how the brain functions.

Rao earned his bachelor in science degree as well as his masters in science from the University of Andhra-India and his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Madras-India in 1982. He arrived in the United States in April 1982 when he was recruited by the Medical College of Virginia to teach in its Department of Surgery.

He was a research associate in the Department of Neurology at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., and later a research physiologist for eight years at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Kansas City. He was at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center 15 years, serving in various professional positions, before being recruited to Peoria.

Rao is now senior associate dean for research as well as head of the Department for Cancer Biology and Pharmacology at UICOMP.

Dr. Sara Rusch, regional dean at the College of Medicine, referred to Rao in nominating him for The Peorian of the Year as "a caring mentor" and said "his professional success serves as an inspiration to many. He puts into active practice many characteristics of an exceptional leader. He is a man of high integrity and exemplary character, a dedicated and passionate scientific researcher, a confident and inspiring mentor, steadfast and focused in purpose, and committed to excellence in all he does."

Community service is considered an important part of The Peorian of the Year Award and while Rao doesn't serve on boards of civic organizations or not for profit agencies, Dr. Rusch said his community service extends well beyond central Illinois.

"Research discoveries such as Dr. Rao's provide benefits to our global society by advancing research innovations, improving drug discoveries and producing life-saving answers to one of this nation's most baffling and destructive diseases. Anyone can develop cancer. Cancer is a personally devastating disease that affects the lives of the vast majority of Americans – either directly when they personally receive the frightful diagnosis or indirectly when they watch a loved one or friend battle the disease. It takes its physical and emotional toll on the millions who develop this disease, on their friends and loved ones who care for and support them, and on the medical community who must often stand helplessly by when the miracles of modern medicine are powerless against this relentless disease.

"It is Dr. Rao's life goal to improve the quality of life and survival rates for cancer patients, and the potential societal impact of Dr. Rao's patented research is tremendous. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. and accounts for nearly 1 in every 4 deaths. The American Cancer Society reports that nearly 580,000 Americans are expected to die of cancer this year (approximately 1,600 deaths daily). Illinois currently ranks 7th in terms of new cancer diagnoses and cancer-related deaths. The National Institutes of Health reports the overall annual costs of cancer in 2010 was $263.8 billion, of which $102.8 billion represented direct medical costs. Cancer statistics are the startling reality, but cancer research such as Dr. Rao's represents the promising hope," Rusch wrote.

Rao himself is soft spoken; with a still-heavy Indian accent he can be difficult to understand when he lets his volume drop. He said he doesn't talk a lot, but rather lets his results speak for him. "My thought has always been, 'talk less, produce more.' I tell my staff that, but that is up to each individual," he said.

He is more concerned about getting the world-class research associates here to begin with. Most he recruits, he said, are put off by Peoria's size and location. "That makes it more difficult but I ask them to not be discouraged by how small Peoria is, but to be encouraged by the work we can do. Once they come here, they don't want to leave. That's
because of the work but because of Peoria, also," Rao said.

He added he intends to stay in Peoria for the long term, probably even retire here — if he ever retires. "I consider myself a Peorian now. I have no plans to leave. It's a nice place to live, a family oriented place and very friendly. I like lakes and hills and trees. It's a small city with a lot of attractions. I also like that the leaders and politicians are very supportive of the work we are doing. They know that Peoria is very lucky to have the College of Medicine. They don't take it for granted," he said.

He said Dr. Rager once told him that others in the community warned that Rao would probably only stay in Peoria about three years before he'd be recruited away. "I'm not leaving. Peoria is now on the map in research. Neuroresearchers all over the world know us and where we are. This is where I want to be," he said.

Children's Hospital of ILLINOIS
Local Not-For-Profit chosen by Dr. Jasti Rao

The Children's Hospital of Illinois recognizes the effect a child's illness can have not only on the child but on his or her entire family.

Dr. Jasti Rao knows about the effects of illness, particularly the devastation that can be wrought by cancer. His life is centered on research he one day hopes will lead to treatment that can alleviate the effects if not cure some forms of cancer.

If he is selected by our readers as the winner of the inaugural The Peorian of the Year Award, Rao has chosen the Children's Hospital of Illinois to be the recipient of the $10,000 award that will be given by The Peorian.

Children's Hospital of Illinois is the only full service tertiary hospital for kids in downstate Illinois. With 127 beds and more than 100 pediatric subspecialists, Children's Hospital cares for more children in Illinois than any hospital outside of Chicago.

According to the hospital, it was formally established as a pediatric hospital within the walls of OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in 1990.

"However, as early as 1949, our pediatricians and other specialists pioneered the nation's first special care facility for premature infants. Each year, Children's Hospital has over 5,000 admissions; 2,000 newborn deliveries, and 16,000 emergency department visits. It is the third largest pediatric hospital in Illinois and the only full service tertiary hospital for children in central Illinois," the hospital said on its website, childrenshospitalofil.org.

"We recognize a child's illness impacts the entire family. Over 500 dedicated employees strive each day to provide the best service for patients and their families and have been recently recognized in national satisfaction surveys. We believe children are unique and have special needs. Our 127-bed facility offers hundreds of exclusive pediatric programs, services, and treatment," it said.

For more information about the hospital access its website or call (309) 655-7171.

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