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PC Profile: Deepak Rao OPC '97

One of the drawbacks to running a medical research lab is that the director doesn’t get to do much of the hands-on research.

“I do most everything except being at the bench,” laughed Deepak Rao OPC ’97, a rheumatologist, immunologist and the principal investigator of the Rao Lab at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “I don’t get to do experiments anymore.”

But if Rao is no longer working with test tubes, he is still busy. He is also an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and co-director of Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Human Immunology Center and its Single Cell Genomics Core.

It is his research lab, however, that occupies most of Rao’s time. There he oversees a team of 14, which includes eight postdoctoral fellows, three graduate students, two technicians and a research coordinator. Rao sets the path that everyone else will follow.

“The cool thing about this kind of setup is that you set the research agenda,” he explained. “You get to decide what you think is interesting or important and then try it. You just need to convince funders that it’s a compelling idea.”

Rao’s research focuses primarily on autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, which together afflict as many as three million Americans. His research is aimed in two principal directions. One is to help focus treatments. There are currently more than half a dozen drugs to treat autoimmune diseases, but doctors are unable to predict which will work on which patients. Instead, they must go by trial and error, starting with one drug and then moving to another if the first one proves ineffective. The process takes time, costs money and prolongs treatment.

“We’re really interested in the idea that we should be able to identify activities of the immune system in a patient before we start a therapy, to predict whether the patient is going to respond,” Rao said.

Autoimmune diseases occur when the body’s defense mechanism receives faulty signals and begins to attack its own cells rather than those from an outside source, such as a virus. Rao’s other principal research interest, then, is to identify what causes those faulty signals, which he hopes could lead to new treatments to block them and head off problems before they begin.

One change even since Rao was in medical school is that research has become much more computerized. “It’s much more computational than it used to be,” he acknowledged. “That reflects the fact that we can generate at the lab, with pipettes and test tubes, much more data than we could before. Then it becomes a computational challenge to wade through the data and try to find patterns that are important. Now almost all our trainees are learning how to code.”

Funding for Rao’s research comes from many sources, including the National Institutes of Health and other branches of the federal government, private groups such as the Rheumatology Research Foundation and the Lupus Research Alliance, and the pharmaceutical industry, which seeks information to help fine-tune some of its treatment drugs. Rao estimated that he spends about half his time running the lab, a quarter of his time writing grant proposals and devising new projects, and a quarter of his time seeing patients.

With such a diverse practice, Rao must do many different types of work, and he credits his teachers at Penn Charter for helping him develop a wide range of skills. Alice Davis Hon. 1689, for example, pushed him to understand the concepts of chemistry, while English teachers Joe Perrott Hon. 1689 and Fred Huntington taught him how to write in different styles, a talent Rao said he still finds useful when seeking grant funding or describing a new research project he would like to undertake. Outside the classroom, Rao said his long-distance running coaches, Harvey Rentschler Hon. 1689 and Jim Ballengee Hon. 1689, could be encouraging and flexible, while his track head coach, Steve Bonnie OPC ’66, showed him how to build a diverse group of people into a disciplined, organized team.

After earning his BA at Harvard and both an MD and a PhD at Yale, Rao joined the staff at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in 2010, and began building a disciplined, organized staff of his own when he opened the Rao Lab four years ago.

– Mark Bernstein OPC '79