Y Magazine

Coffee with Dr Rao Suddapalli

Dr Rao Suddapalli has made a significant contribution to medicine and tells Alvin Thomas why he carries on working to help save and improve people’s lives.

Having coffee with Dr Rao Suddapalli is like having a coffee with a member of my family. Why? Dr Rao and his wife Usha are two of the most dedicated Y readers I have ever come across.

A while ago, I got a heads-up that Dr Rao is an avid marathon runner. So, with that in mind, I was to meet him for a quick interview.

Dr Rao came from humble beginnings – in Ongole, Andhra Pradesh, India – to study medicine.

But due to his passion and commitment to his chosen field, he took over control of the local district hospital and encountered a few cases that were, to say the least, intriguing.

“In a few months of starting work, I had to attend to a case in which a lady, with the help of her paramour, had poisoned her husband,” he says

“The lady was politically powerful. She was trying to pay people off to buy her way out of being prosecuted. I was convinced that it was a case of acute poisoning, so I prepared the report for court. But the lady was represented by a top lawyer from the neighbouring city of Chennai and he blew everything we had to smithereens.

“He even questioned my credibility. But when I placed the evidence on the table for the judge to see, there was no doubt in the mind of the judge. The lady was convicted of murder and given life in prison.”

This case also served as Dr Rao’s entry into government service. In a few months, he voluntarily signed up to become a part-time professor in a women’s college in his state.

But, in 1978, he was given the exclusive opportunity to work with the government of India for a medical research project on a deputation basis, in the city of Trivandrum, Kerala.

“The government only took two people from other state governments, and I was lucky to be one of them. The entire project contained a total of 16 people and our goal was to develop a prosthetic heart valve for human beings using indigenous materials. The goal was simple: the product had to be cost-effective for people to buy.

“In those days, we were importing heart valves from an international company at a cost of INR300,000 (RO1,713) a piece, which was unaffordable to the average man.

“This project was also the brainchild of the late Dr APJ Abdul Kalam (the 11th president of India) who was then the chief scientific adviser to the Defence Research and Development Organisation.

“We had people from various fields such as bio-medical engineers, pathologists, bio-chemists, administrators, veterinarians, etc. But, I was given charge of the project,” he says with a smile on his face.

“Our first task was to take various valves produced by international companies and dissect them piece by piece to learn how a prosthetic valve worked. We were all novices back then. Then, for a couple of years, we did a lot of spade work to find what kinds of indigenous materials could be used so that the human heart could be sustained,” Dr Rao explains.

“The material is as small as a 100 baisa coin, and the cage would be made of metal, because it has to withstand the rigour of the blood flow. The material was also supposed to be hard and bio-compatible.

“For a couple of years, we tried our luck with various materials which were available in India but we were unsuccessful,” he says. 

And soon, Dr Rao and his team had to concede defeat in finding a material that could be cheap to buy, as well as strong to withstand the natural forces applied by the human body.

But as he says, a little luck was just around the corner.

“Just as I completed my presentation to the review board, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam stood up and said: ‘We have a string of materials available in the defence industry and we get many waste products so you can have some of those’. One of the ‘waste products’ was titanium, which was used in aeronautical engineering at that time. He offered us abundant supplies of titanium for us in our research, and at no cost.

“Soon, we found that titanium was actually the best material to be used in the valves. It was a blessing in disguise,” explains the doctor.

In no time, Dr Rao and his team had the product ready for testing on non-human test subjects and subsequently, on humans. 

“In our own hospital, we conducted more than 10,000 successful surgeries. But the next step was multicentre trials [a clinical trial conducted at more than one medical centre or clinic], and we succeeded in that with flying colours.

“Eight institutions, including the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) began using our valves,” he says with pride.

“Our last stage was trials in foreign countries. And because I was the leader of the project, I personally contacted Dr Denton Cooley – the first doctor to implant a total artificial heart in a human – to ask for an opportunity to test our valves.

“He conceded, and we conducted the trials in his institution in Houston, Texas. There we found out that the valves were functioning excellently. 

“By now, the Indian government had also signed an intellectual property rights agreement with the World Trade Organisation, which allowed inventors to apply for patents for their creations.

“But the patents could only be obtained by qualified advocates, and unfortunately, India had no such advocates at that time,” he tells.

So, Dr Rao embarked on a new journey to obtain a patent for his team for the newly created device. To do this, he studied law at a leading law college in the country, and eventually obtained a patent for their work.

What’s more amazing is that the team sold their invention to the National Research Defence Council (NRDC) for a mere INR1 (RO 0.0057). For their services to the country, the team was also awarded a National Award for Scientific Research.

Today, because of the generosity of Dr Rao and his team, everybody can obtain a heart valve for a mere INR25,000.

Today, the valves, called Chitra Valves, are being manufactured by the TTK Group in India. Dr Rao and his team are the proud advocates of the heart valve, which is used in many countries and has saved millions of lives already.   

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