Written by Alison Johnson

Yorktown couple lands two major financial awards for Hampton University

The past two years have been busy for Anand Iyer and Neelam Azad. First came their July 2011 wedding in India, where the assistant professors at Hampton University grew up in the same city but in families from very different cultures. Two months later, they received a prestigious national grant to study pulmonary fibrosis, a devastating and little-understood lung disease. And this past September, the couple earned another grant, this time to research drug therapies for lung cancer.

The five-year grants, for $1.3 and $1.35 million, came from separate divisions of the National Institutes of Health. Both will focus on diseases with high mortality rates and few —or in many cases, no—treatment options. Iyer and Azad, who work in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences in HU’s School of Pharmacy, are heading research teams that ultimately hope to find cures, or at least help people live longer and more comfortably.

“These are illnesses that are pretty prevalent and that progress very quickly,” Iyer says. “These patients have very little hope now.”

With pulmonary fibrosis, a disease likely to increase nationwide as the population ages, most patients essentially suffocate to death within five years of diagnosis, Azad says. Only a select few may qualify for a lung transplant, itself a risky surgery. “This disease may not be as prevalent as cancer or diabetes, but whoever is diagnosed will die,” she says. “It’s awful.” Hampton researchers hope to pinpoint what factors change in the body to cause the growth of abnormal lung tissue—looking for the equivalent of say, insulin deficiency for diabetics—and attack those with medication.

Lung cancer, meanwhile, kills at least eight of 10 patients diagnosed, according to the American Lung Association. The HU team has identified a potential drug that could specifically target lung tumors and is testing it in laboratory cell cultures, to be followed by animal models.

Iyer and Azad, both 32, grew up in Mumbai, a bustling city on the west coast of India, but crossed paths only briefly in high school and lost touch after graduation. Azad’s family was from Northern India and Iyer’s from its southern region. “It’s almost like being from two different countries,” Iyer says. “Everything from the language to the food to the clothes—it’s very different.”

The two did their undergraduate work at the University of Mumbai, but on different campuses; Iyer studied biomedical engineering and Azad focused on pharmacy. They didn’t reconnect until graduate school, when Azad, who had entered a pharmaceutical sciences doctorate program at West Virginia University in 2002, heard through friends that Iyer, studying for a doctorate in molecular and cellular pathology at the University of Pittsburgh, had arrived in America a year earlier.

“When you come to a different country, you want to get in touch with someone you know,” she says. “I sent him an email asking if he remembered me. We decided to meet, and we just clicked.”

Their families, however, took some time to approve of the match. Many Indian parents still arrange marriages for their children within the same culture. “It was not so fun at first,” Azad says. “Once our parents were on board, though, they were very happy for us.” The couple planned two wedding ceremonies to honor each culture, one rich in song and dance and one more quiet and traditional.

Now settled in Yorktown, Iyer and Azad hope their grants will boost Hampton University’s reputation as a research center. Their similar personalities and career goals help them drive each other but also have fun. “We have a lot of questions to answer, but we’re optimistic,” Iyer says. “We feel we can do work that makes a real difference.”

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