Synergizing Customs and ChemistryKatie Hopewell / Charleston Digital Corridor
With exponential growth taking place in the global wellness industry, people worldwide are increasingly leaning away from fad diets and trendy supplements and are instead recognizing the immense benefits of more transcendent topics like holistic medicine, yoga, spirituality and mental health on a grander scale. Dr. Sundar Balasubramanian, however, has long been on the road of demonstrating the empirical basis of such wellness practices. Having grown up in southern India, these practices were pivotal parts of daily life for him and after finding his passion in science, he has coupled those two seemingly disparate parts of his life to help heal others, from cancer patients to yoga practitioners.
His company, PranaScience is the manifestation of decades of research on cellular and molecular biochemistry as it regards breathing exercises. He offers online and in-person classes on pranayama - the name for these breathing control exercises - two books on his practices and his own mentors, yoga teachings and an encouraging story of how often-overlooked practices can serve people in exceptional and unexpectedly beneficial ways.
This series is brought to you by Charleston County Economic Development.
Would you like to start by telling me a bit about your background? Where you're from and your educational background?
I grew up in a small village in the Tamil Nadu State in southern India. I started learning alphabets when I was in third grade, so in sixth grade, in my village, if a bunch of people raised their hands in a class of maybe 30-40 students, about 3 or 4 of them would know the English alphabet. That's how we learned English in such a rural part of India, so it's not very well-exposed. But that's where I studied, and I learned and operated entirely in the Tamil language. Then I came to college and that's when I started studying science and chemistry and everything in English. So that was a big challenge - changing the entire medium of your education. I completed my undergraduate degree in chemistry followed by a Master's degree and PhD in biochemistry.
For my PhD, I studied how the immune system responds to different types of plant molecules; for example: the oleander plant. The oleander has so many different compounds, like chemical constants, and some of them can be poisonous, some of them are cardiac glycosides, like they act on the heart and cause erythema. Sadly, people consume that as an accidental and intentional poison. We developed a technique to detect oleander poison, and that was my PhD thesis.
That project pretty much got me into the immunology field; immunology was my favorite subject in my Masters. I like chemistry, I like organic chemistry and then immunology is my favorite. I had an opportunity to go to the National Institute of Immunology in Delhi to study the mimicry of molecules, like one molecule may be chemically different - it's a sugar molecule, and the other would be a protein molecule, so a smaller peptide - but they, geometrically, look alike. The immune system doesn't care about the chemical properties of the molecule, it will just assess the geometry. So, it will detect and react to the molecule in the same manner, despite the chemical at hand.
What brought you to Charleston?
I came to Charleston from India for my post-doctoral research in 1999. That's how I came to Charleston. There were about 3 or 4 Indians total and it was very nice and quiet back then - a very close community. I was here in Charleston for four years, then moved to Yale for four years for another research associateship. Then I came back here in 2006, and I've been here ever since.
What pushed you to pursue the research that you conduct and develop your company?
I love structural biology; it gives me a deeper understanding of how molecules are arranged, how they track with each other and how they function. I would say that one year exposure helped me build up my career later. When I came here, the first study I did was on the activation of some of the molecules or protein networks in cardiac cells. The heart cells, when they are under pressure, they'll expand, they'll grow or remodel, so I studied how they remodeled.
After learning I had a passion for cellular structures, I studied bone cells up at Yale. Also, when I was at Yale, I had a lot of opportunities to study the different types of microscoping - how we can look at an image of cells in different ways. I did live microscoping, where you can see things as they happen, like how cells will change their structures.
Then, I came back here to the cardiology department, where I continued my research until 2014. Then, I moved to Hollings Cancer Center in 2014 and that's where I am right now, in the Department of Radiation Oncology. We have a couple of different focus areas; one is to understand how tobacco and other smoke interacts with radiation therapy in cancer cells, and the other is breathing exercises. That's what my company is about.
What does your company do?
PranaScience was started in 2007 to spread my life's knowledge and expertise to help others through pranayama. We provide talks, workshops and other information on breathing exercises as well as develop content for others to learn the exercises.
How did your company do during the pandemic?
When the pandemic hit in 2020, all travel had ceased. I was going to a big yoga meet in Sedona. I think I was on the first leg of my trip to Phoenix, and when I landed, Arizona entered a state of emergency. Being that I used to travel to teach my classes, that made it very interesting moving forward.
Oddly enough, I began using Zoom in 2018 to hold some of my classes. I'm an early bird, so that gave me plenty of time to hold my classes on Zoom every morning from 5:30 to 6:00am. During the pandemic, I just expanded my use of that platform – making it an easy adjustment for me.
And being that the labs were closed, that gave me time to apply for grants. That was actually when I earned the grant I have now from the National Cancer Institute.
What do you hope to do in the future?
I have three goals. One is to understand the mechanisms of breathing exercises - how they work. The second is to determine which exercises are good for certain people at certain times. The third is to disseminate the knowledge. To achieve these goals, I secure funding through grants. My goal is to put this entire library on a subscription-based model so that everyone can access it.
What has been one of the most fascinating findings of your research?
I grew up with an Indian background called the Siddha; the Siddha is one of the most ancient traditional mental systems in the southern part of India, based in the Tamil land. It uses all the natural elements: earth minerals, materials from the ocean, any type of plant material - but they will not kill a tree to get the medicine, in order to preserve nature. Growing up, I practiced yoga with my family. I had a lot of teachers from the family who would do yoga with me and practiced medicine. That gave me a lot of exposure and learning experiences in that area. I sort of started the yoga practice when I came over here, with my friends and my friends' kids.
In 2005, I got a book called Thirumandiram, an ancient book written by Saint Thirumoolar. He wrote that book, it's 3000 poems and some of them are about yoga, some are about wisdom, and do's and don'ts–-all kinds of ethical 'stuff.' It's basically a tool for enlightenment. When I was going through the chapters on pranayama, which refers to the breathing exercises that I study, that's where I started developing a scientific interest in the practices. I wanted to see how it works, and what things from that and yoga practice that can be useful.
One of the things that happened inside me when I was following the breathing exercises in the text was salivary stimulation. I saw that you produce more saliva when you do those relaxation exercises. It was fascinating because you have two systems - the stress system and the relaxation system - and the relaxation system becomes stimulated when doing those breathing exercises and it has tremendous impacts on your biology: like, how your body responds, how your breathing changes, how your heart rate changes and the salivary stimulation in the throat and eyes. It's profound.
Any memorable moments when conducting research?
I saw that experience in me, when I tried the breathing practices on my own accord, and I started connecting it to biology. Saliva changes so much as you grow up, during different emotions and exposures; so many things can change saliva. I thought to myself: 'Okay, if you do this exercise and it induces some changes, what are those changes?' Even though I had that experience back in 2006, I didn't get to study it until 2013 in the lab. When I did get to study it, I found a lot of molecules that are important to your brain's function, functions of the immune system, functions of the stress system - all of these things changed. We published a bunch of papers from that time, between 2014 to 2016. And then I thought, 'Okay, there are a lot of uses from my research for the general population.'
People who are stressed experience dry mouth, and as we age, we develop dry mouth and maybe you're getting ready to go to an interview and that's when the dry mouth starts, when you're tense. This also manifests in internal secretion systems like mucus, and that makes it easier for bacteria to grow internally. The infection rate is very high in people who experience dry mouth and dry eyes.
I wanted to use these concepts in my own patient populations at work. We have cancer patients who undergo radiation treatment for their head and neck cancer, so their salivary glands are basically destroyed. We can train them ahead of their treatment on how to help those glands preemptively through relaxation. I just keep thinking of how this stuff can be useful and I keep finding out more.
How helpful has the Charleston Digital Corridor been for you?
Ernest is a great colleague; he has a lot of ways through which he trains people. I told him about my business when he was working for the city, and he has been such a great mentor for me ever since. When I was applying for grants, someone made a comment to me about the fact that I didn't even have an office - I was running my business from home. The CDC has not only fulfilled my need for a flexible office, but it's also a great atmosphere that I can use to interact with like-minded people, to know the business world - I'm a scientist, so I only knew the lab, then I began to know the yoga industry - but my interaction with the Charleston Digital Corridor gave me insight into business as a whole.
What advice would you give to aspiring researchers or new graduates seeking to be entrepreneurs within science?
There's a lot of opportunities for you. Once you know what your passion is, you can pursue that. There are so many different ways that you can get to where you want to be. Be open, talk to people and expand your network. If there is an academic talk about your passion, sit in the front and ask the speaker your questions. Don't be intimidated by people misunderstanding your work. The effort you spend on familiarizing your work makes it easier for people to connect with and work with you. If you want to go further, go together.
What is one thing about you that people would be surprised to know?
I'm a people's person. I love interacting with strangers. I'm also very involved with community work. From 2003 to 2015, I was very active on this blog that was written in Tamil language. When Blogger had started, I started blogging with around 15 other people in that language. It was a very deeply connecting thing for me. I am also very politically involved, especially relating to Tamil's politics. They're like part of me.
Outside of work what keeps you busy?
Like I said, I'm very politically inclined. I've been occupied with social movements here. I'm part of the local Tamil organization, I was President and one of the founding members of that, and we started it in 2003. I was also a supporting director for the national Tamil organization for two years. We did a big convention here in Charleston at the Gaillard with a thousand people from all over the country. When I think about those things now, I wonder how I had all the energy to do it. I have a lot of different hats that I wear.
Favorite book or podcast? Thirumandiram
Favorite Charleston beach? Isle of Palms
Favorite Coffee shop? Starbucks. It's consistent.