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Scientist Spotlight: Selvakumar “Selva” Subbian, PhD

Scientist Spotlight

Solving the mysteries of endemic disease

The spark of creativity that inspires a lifelong passion for research can originate from many places.

Bio Photo Selvakumar Subbian

For Dr. Selvakumar “Selva” Subbian, his interest in tuberculosis arose from witnessing the suffering in his community growing up in India: “Tuberculosis (TB) has a lot of puzzles and mysteries that are worth exploring. Even after 25 years of research, I continue to investigate the pathogenesis of TB with the same kind of enthusiasm. I have the determination, dedication, and passion to take on the challenge to contribute to the elimination of a catastrophic disease, still endemic in several countries, including India.

Across the world, TB is the number one fatal infectious disease, and has been in existence for thousands of years, as evidenced in Egyptian mummies. Selva’s research interests are invested in understanding host-pathogen interactions, specifically surrounding tuberculosis pathogenesis in humans, and in enabling novel drug discovery systems, such as host-directed therapies.

Selva strives to better understand the factors underpinning progression of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb) to symptomatic active tuberculosis (TB), versus the disease’s asymptomatic latency, in which the bacteria can persist in a host for decades before causing symptomatic disease. His current and future work will expand into host-directed therapy, getting the TB research community to build hybrid solutions in choosing the right model system to interrogation in the genomics realm, and be a champion use of a more “relevant-to-human” rabbit model of TB, which produces a similar disease pathology as seen in human TB patients.

“When I decided to pursue work in human infectious diseases, I did a quick review of the most important infectious diseases affecting humans in the world. Tuberculosis popped up on the top of the list. Plus, I personally witnessed people suffering from TB in my village.”

His scientific career also brought him on a personal journey, from undergraduate studies at Bharathiar University (Coimbatore, India) to graduate studies for his MS at the University of Madras and PhD at the Tuberculosis Research Center (now, National Institute of Tuberculosis Research) affiliated with the Tamil Nadu Dr. M.G.R. Medical University (both in Chennai, India) to postdoctoral research at the University of Nebraska (Lincoln, Nebraska, USA) and Texas A&M Health Science Center (College Station, Texas, USA). Since 2009 he’s been associated with Rutgers University (formerly University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey) as part of the New Jersey Medical School’s Public Health Research Institute (PHRI), where he currently runs his own lab as an Associate Professor of Medicine.

RIGHT IMAGE: Mouse lung infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis stained with Masson’s Trichrome to visualize collagen deposition, fibrosis and tissue remodeling. The main structures shown are a bronchus and a pulmonary vessel. Nuclei are stained brown, cytoplasm and erythrocytes are stained red and collagen is stained blue.

ID Tc XD Rev

Selva believes that his mentors have offered important advice to guide both his life and his career. His thesis advisor advised him to “strike while the iron is hot” and work on complementary experiments while they’re working. Other mentors wisely noted that “you are never done” because there is always another question to answer in research and to work towards balance by ensuring that you do “everything in moderation”. When he offers advice, it is geared toward newcomer researchers to share that it is a pathway that is not for everyone nor easy to pursue, as it demands sacrifice, dedication, patience, and perseverance. He believes that at some point in life, the researcher in you will become your persona in everyday life, as it has in him.

“What excites me about these pathogens (TB and SARS-CoV-2, which we’ve also been working with for the past year) is that they are in a sense like aliens: we can’t see them with our eyes, yet they can make havoc on our bodies… TB is a pathogen that seems to have a lot of patience—waiting to take hold when the host becomes weak.”

As one who relies on grants funded by taxpayer money, Selva perceives a corresponding responsibility of global citizenry as a motivational factor for researchers. This is rooted in his persona, expressed as a strong dedication to finding solutions to public health issues, an inquisitive fascination in nature’s intricate balance between health and disease, and a long-term passion to focus on pathogens, including sharing his time in collaborative research, writing grant applications and manuscripts and reviewing research articles with fellow researchers around the world.

Preclinical models for research on TB and other respiratory diseases require pathologic analysis of samples, with such techniques as immunofluorescent (IF) and immunohistochemistry (IHC) analysis of lung tissue, a tissue with high autofluorescence. He has developed a great appreciation for products that help address the issues that interfere with analysis, including the Vector Labs TrueVIEW® Autofluorescence Quenching Kit, for visualization of the pathogen-infected lung tissue. While Selva understands that developing additional species-on-species antibody reagents for animal models, such as rabbits, which is used by a limited number of researchers studying TB worldwide may not necessarily be a lucrative business undertaking, it certainly could help researchers invested in the stewardship of public health. Selva has chosen his persona with intention and purpose as he associates with a quote by Stephen Grellet, “I shall pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again”.

Rabbit lung (CD8 T-cells) with tuberculosis incubated with anti-CD8-T cell antibody. TrueView® Autofluorescence Quenching kit (Vector Laboratories) was used to block autofluorescence in these sections. The ImmEdge® hydrophobic barrier PAP Pen was used to separate these two sections placed on the same slide.
Rabbit lung (Macrophages) with tuberculosis incubated with anti-IBA-1 (macrophage) antibody. TrueView® Autofluorescence Quenching kit (Vector Laboratories) was used to block autofluorescence in these sections. The ImmEdge® hydrophobic barrier PAP Pen was used to separate these two sections placed on the same slide.