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Pursuing productivity

Amitabh Jha: a leader in cancer research

October 1, 2018

When Amitabh Jha set foot on Acadia’s campus in 2002 to begin teaching, his first reaction was culture shock. “In India, even one of the small schools is very large from the Canadian perspective,” he says. “I came with a mindset that bigger is actually better, which completely got shattered when I came to Acadia and started teaching here.”

I came with a mindset that bigger is actually better, which completely got shattered when I came to Acadia.”

A professor in Acadia’s Chemistry Department, Jha teaches organic chemistry and biochemistry, specializing in medicinal chemistry and cancer drug discovery. He is an acknowledged expert in drug discovery for breast cancer, and from 2011 to 2016 he held the George H. Wallace Endowed Chair in Chemistry.

“I did a little bit of adjusting in the beginning, and after that I fell in love with the place, the classroom size, and the interaction with students,” he says. “I really enjoy the way we are able to make a difference in their lives. This is what an educational institution should be about.”

Seeing students succeed is especially gratifying, he says. “I have started seeing my students who are doctors in the Annapolis Valley. It’s a great feeling to find out that your students are successful and have a rewarding career ahead of them.”

Top-notch training

Undergraduate students are his workforce in the lab. “We train them and make them ready for graduate school,” he says. “This not only prepares them for their future, it makes our effort worthwhile when we are able to publish good-quality research.”

Drug discovery requires a lot of interdisciplinary work over many years, so the work in an undergraduate environment is always at the experimental stage.

“Just working in my lab, with a few collaborators here and there, I may not be able to discover a drug per se,” Jha says. “However, the training that I am able to give to my students, if they go on and contribute to discovery of a drug, I will consider that my efforts have been fruitful.” The training often pays off for the students when they go to graduate school, he adds. “I get to hear from their supervisors that their training has been good and they are doing wonders in their lab.”

Chemistry touches everything, he points out. “Everything around us is chemicals,” he says, “right from grocery stores to clothing stores to different electronics and different types of building materials. Not to mention drugs and medicines. There are diseases for which we do not have a cure, so we need to continue to do drug discovery.”

Renovation brings innovation

In 2017–18, major renovations to Elliott Hall and Huggins Hall modernized their facilities. The new David Huestis Innovation Pavilion linked the two science buildings and provided space and labs for research and commercialization.

“With the lab newly renovated, everything has changed,” he says. “I’m excited to start work there. We can’t wait to put all our ideas into practice and then start getting results – and I’m sure that this improved infrastructure is going to produce additional productivity.”

His work in the lab with students adds to the body of knowledge for cancer research. “That knowledge may be used by others to save lives,” he says. “Drug discovery is a long process, approximately 10 to 15 years from start to finish in a focused industry environment. The total amount of money spent in discovering a drug is close to a billion dollars. We train students how to design drugs and how to make them in the lab, and we can collaborate or have partners who can push our compounds further.”

Through industry collaboration, Jha is able to obtain support for his students or leverage money to obtain additional grants from funding agencies. “Our colleagues in industry are with us because they see that the type of work we are doing is worth pursuing there,” he says. “That tells us our work is attracting interest, and that makes us feel good.”