Unconventional journey in Science & Innovation
By Arun Sridhar, Ph.D.
About: Arun Sridhar is an entrepreneur and founder of a stealth bioelectronics medicine initiative. Before this, he was a founding member of the Bioelectronics effort within GSK and had impactful leadership skills in leading cross-functional R&D teams. He is a systems physiologist trained in clinical cardiology/cardiac surgery with a keen eye for next-generation targets for treating chronic diseases. Arun has a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University. He served as the head of discovery at GSK Bioelectronics R&D and led the creation of the portfolio for the research unit. In 2016, this portfolio was valued at £190 million and led to the formation of Galvani Bioelectronics, a GSK/Verily joint venture. He has authored 19 broad foundational methods of treatment patents and has over 30 peer-reviewed publications in the field. Arun Sridhar was a founding management team member of the company.Before joining Bioelectronics, Arun led the preclinical safety team at GSK, where he developed and employed cardiovascular safety strategies to the whole GSK R&D pipeline to ensure the safety of drugs. His formative years were in clinical cardiology and cardiac surgery, where he was instrumental in setting up the first homograft valve bank in South Asia. He has over 300 cardiac surgical assistive experiences.
Science Career Story
Recently, I came across a post on LinkedIn where a ball was dropped at the top vertex of a right triangle, and the three paths that the ball took were tested. One was along the hypotenuse, the second was straight drop and rolled to the opposite baseline vertex, and the third was parabolic with a dip and then an incline. The posed question was — Which one did you think was the fastest? Much to mine and others’ surprise, the third parabolic path was the most rapid as gravity pulled the ball down quickly. Due to the incline, it had enough kinetic energy to roll to the opposite vertex of the right triangle.Now, let me ask you the question in a different way: If each of those paths were a career choice, which path would offer more learnings and break the dogma of what we know about life and career? My life and career have been pretty unconventional, even by my standards of non-conformance from early childhood. As a millennial born in 1981, I grew up in a very stable middle-class family not that different from many of you, except that, unlike today, where salaries are high, my parents, like most others, spent close to 40% of their monthly salary on my education. While many moved away from the CBSE syllabus to Tamil Nadu State and Matriculation schools to ensure higher marks for college admission, I stayed in CBSE mainly due to my stubbornness. Fortunately for me, it made me miss my goal of becoming a doctor, a cardiac surgeon that I wanted to become.
In 1998, when I finished school, I had two options, spend an extra year or two writing entrance exams to get into medical colleges or do something meaningful and different. Of course, having a driven father helps too. On his recommendation, I enrolled in a new program in India called BS Physician Assistant. The concept originated in the US and was introduced to India by Dr. KM Cherian through BITS Pilani as an off-campus program in Chennai. Dr. KM Cherian is the first to do a cardiac bypass, many novel cardiac procedures in adult and pediatric cardiac surgeries and even has the honour and achievement of performing the first heart and lung transplant in India. Had I chosen to get my MBBS, I would probably have taken another few years to work with him or perhaps even a decade later. By this time, I am sure my life would have taken a different course if I had chosen the well-trodden path of spending additional years preparing for medical entrance exams.
In stark contrast to university life, however, I was satiated intellectually by working at a hospital at the age of 18 and learning about advanced cardiology every day. It was the perfect combination of work, study, and experience-based learning. In the final (fourth) year, it was internship time and I worked as a second assistant in complex cardiac surgeries and learned what experienced surgeons do. Imagine being 20 years old and learning what surgeons 10 years older had just started to learn. My biggest worry at the time was that the PA program was not recognised at the time. Only in the last two years has the program received ICMR recognition, owing to the hard work of many physician assistants who might have cared for your loved ones at hospitals around India. I was sure that working in a routine hospital would not suit my life’s ambitions by this time. A late evening call from Dr. KM Cherian as he rushed into the OR at 7 PM changed my life forever. During that surgery, I was asked what my ambitions were. I reluctantly told them that I wanted to be a surgeon and could not. Without any hesitation, the two surgeons asked me to pursue research. Buoyed on by the fact that my ambitions met their blessings, I pressed on with more rigorous GRE preparations. During these four years, I had a chance to assist in over 300 surgeries in the last 18 months of my study. I also established the first homograft valve bank, which is still the best way to treat congenital cardiac conditions instead of using artificial valves.
With the perfect alignment of my interests and their insistence, I landed in the US after a year of preparations that spanned doing word lists and analytics in a steamy, nauseating, staunch smell of carcasses in a mortuary where I would go to collect hearts for the valve bank. Since I had to wait before harvesting the heart from the cadavers and obtaining permission, I thought, why to waste time and study during that time. Anyways, this took me to The Ohio State University, where my stubborn nature again ensured I was only applying to universities with a solid cardiac research background. The rest, as they say, is history, but it was not without hiccups. I was admitted into the Biophysics Program at OSU. Due to my unconventional (lack of basic research) background, I was invited on a paid stipend in summer 2002 rather than fall 2002 to kick start my lab rotations. I had no clue about basic science or protein structure etc. So right on cue in my first term, my GPA fell below 3.0, and I was on academic probation. You can buy me coffee or a beer to have me describe how I got out of it in the following three terms. Nevertheless, this experience brought out a steely resolve that I would be the best at what I do, no matter the situation.
My life has been a parabolic path, the failures of not getting into medical colleges could have disappointed others. In my case, I used that as a springboard and told myself — “never again” and this propels me to this very day.
After a very productive Ph.D. and 18 manuscripts later, my life brought me to the UK, which again was an accident of applying for a role late at night, half-intoxicated with alcohol while browsing Nature Medicine. I was hired to a position where the hiring manager apparently waited 18 months to find the right person. My role was to perform a risk assessment of cardiovascular safety and advise drug discovery teams in devising strategies to mitigate this risk. After three years and still actively publishing during that time, I got the chance to establish something from the ground up, in Bioelectronics. Why? GSK had just realized that nerves, much like molecular pathways, offered pathways that offered a way to intervene and treat disease.
How I got to this role was an accident, too, and something that I outlined in my first episode of the podcast I produce (www.skrapspodcast.com). After 8.5 productive years of being the architect of the R&D portfolio that led to the $715 million investment to form Galvani Bioelectronics, I have now stepped out of that role to establish something existing. At its peak, my research focused on 23 different nerve targets across 23 various indications. However, only one of them was the vagus, and every single nerve target was in the autonomic nervous system.
Right now, it is my life’s mission to define a new path for intervening in disease and nerves; much like proteins and enzymes, I remain deeply convinced that it offers a parallel path to modulate disease pathophysiology.
So, my life has been a parabolic path, the failures of not getting into medical colleges could have disappointed others. In my case, I used that as a springboard and told myself — “never again” and this propels me to this very day.