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From the slums of India to the labs of King’s College London: be inspired by Professor Lawrence Rajendran’s journey

By Elisângela Mendonça

As Professor Lawrence Rajendran gets ready for his inaugural lecture as deputy director at the Dementia Research Institute at King’s College London (KCL), he can’t contain his excitement. The 44-year-old neuroscientist stands in front of a crowded auditorium with the energy of a teenager to update students on the new developments in his research on the biology of Alzheimer’s disease.

Although he is taking over a position in one of the most respectable science institutes in the world, he is relaxed and makes jokes. Whoever meets the professor using the “science is sexy” catchphrase, though, has no idea his journey began 6,000 miles away, in the slums of Chennai, India.

Raised in the slums of Chennai, Professor Lawrie is the new deputy director of the Dementia Research Institute

Raised by a single mother, he made his way out of a lower caste in an unfair social-division system to become a top scientist leading the way to defeat neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

As a child, his alcoholic, abusive father abandoned his mother and his two sisters when he was just five years old. While growing up, poverty was a constant presence in the slums of Chennai, in a community built over a dumping ground and without electricity, as he recalls in his lecture to a rapt audience.

“When my father left, we went into even more poverty. So one of the things that we did was to grow all the vegetables we could.” In a moment of abject poverty, he remembers going to school with a package of dog food.

Public education in India and an “enormously strict Asian mother” were the ingredients that allowed him to excel, he said. “If I got less than 90 as a mark, I’d be beaten,” he said while laughing. He was a gold medallist student at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels at the University of Madras, Chennai, where he studied Biochemistry for his bachelor’s and Molecular Biology for his MA.

His excellent performance as a student took him to Germany to complete a PhD, and then to Switzerland, where he lived the last decade while working as a professor at the University of Zurich.

Research on neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia has been part of his journey since 2004 when his PhD supervisor discovered the connection between high cholesterol and Alzheimer’s. “Professor Lawrie”, as he is fondly called by his students, became fascinated with the biological aspects of the disease and decided this would be his path in life: fighting the disease as much as he can.

Today, Lawrie’s contributions to science are remarkable. His work deals with the genes that predispose people to develop Alzheimer’s disease, as well as the link between food and the development of neurodegenerative diseases. Aside from nutritional recommendations, his findings pave the way for the development of medication to treat these diseases.

Professor Lawrence Rajendran during his inaugural lecture at King’s College London, in May 2019

Science matters

Outside of his lab, he is also working to promote science as the founder of ScienceMatters, an open-access science journal platform that publishes single observations in science as opposed to full stories or scientific articles, in a more holistic approach. In the platform, it is possible to publish all the observations during research and data gathered. “Science is much more than publishing articles,” he said.

Over 850,000 people live with dementia in the UK today, and this number is set to increase to one million by 2025, and two million by 2050, Public Health England reports. Worldwide, around 50 million people have dementia and there are nearly 10 million new cases every year. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia and may contribute to 60 to 70 per cent of cases, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Having built a stable career as a neuroscientist, with awards and prizes filling his office, including the World’s Top 100 Scientists in 2009, among other honours, Professor Lawrie has no intention of stopping. “Defeating dementia is on my bucket list,” he says.