Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Interview : BiotechRings Magazine :Dr. A. Devi, an eminent scientist in stem cell research, shares her experiences and suggestions for young inspiring researchers

She is currently an Assistant Professor in SRM University and has her own research  laboratory, which is funded by agencies like DBT. She is the author to many papers in reputed international journals.

Having a PhD inZoology, what triggered your decision to pursue  research in cancer  and stem cell biology?

 I  completed my Ph.D. in Zoology, Madras University following which I was able to have an exposure  to all the avenues  in science amongst which Stem cell biol- ogy struck my cord  when  I completed post  doctoral fellowship from University of Alberta,  Canada.  I  further worked for over 2 years in MIOT hospital research centre  where  I  studied  the  ‘Use of fat pads  adopted from  patients  with  knee  replacement  surgeries   to cure  orthopedic non-disjunctions,  by selectively  dif- ferentiating  adipose  stem  cells to osteoblast cells for bone repair’. Currently, my lab focuses on a stem cells marker- Nucleostemin, Breast milk derived stem cells, cancer  biology  and  inter-correlation between  stem cells and phospholipids.

When you first started research,  the field of stem cells was still at nascent stage,  what were the hardships /challenges that you came across?

Lack of diversification in stem  cell research  and only a  handful  of people  really working  with  stem  cells, the start-up of my research  laboratory  was not easy. Mastering the culture of stem cells is the key to prolific results in stem cells research.  I would say, contamina- tion was the  biggest  hurdle. Maintenance  of a sterile environment with a responsibility of guiding scholars working takes time and practice.

Despite these  hardships what has been  your constant motivation that has helped  you to achieve so many accolades in this field?

Well, my family is the constant motivation  I have ever had.   Professionally,   the   co-operation  of  clinicians needed for collection of human  sample  for studies  is worth  mentioning.  I  am  grateful  to  all the  hospitals especially SRM medical College.

How has research in stem cells improved  in last couple of years? Further, where do you see the face of stem cells in the coming years?

During the last couple of years, a lot of focus on stem cell research  has opened up new areas  of interest  in this field. Researchers are looking for new sources from which we can avail continuous  supply of stem cells by procedures that are less invasive and painful. Research on identification  of stem  cell markers  and character- ization of the  different  types  of stem  cells has been the  important part  of stem  cell research  during  the last decade. However, use of stem cells for therapeutic approaches against  various diseases  like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes and cancer  would be the centre of research  in the near future. A time would certainly come, when we can think of stem cell treatments than other treatments.

Could you please  elaborate on the current work being done in the field of stem cells worldwide  as well as in India?

Research   institutions  and  many  private  companies are involved in stem cell research  worldwide including India. BiorestorativeTherapies’,   a  life sciences  com- pany, has newly identified human adult brown fat cells and  developed a cell-based  treatment for diabetes. Their results have been  published  in the journal Stem Cells. The Stem  Cell Center  (Danstem),  University of Copenhagen, has recently shown the impact of phys- ical environment on embryonic  and  embryonic  stem cells (ESCs) on its specialization to different cell types. This understanding is an important step  toward  stem cell-based  cell therapies for conditions  like diabetes and liver diseases. Work on cancer stem cells has also gained  momentum in the  recent  years  as  it is well known that these cells play an important role in metas- tasis.  Recently, T cells with stem  cell like properties have been detected to play a role in resistance of HIV patients to  antiviral treatment. In addition  to  these,innumerable  studies  are being  conducted worldwide to identify new gene  targets for patients with differ- ent  disease  conditions  like Alzheimer’s and stem  cell replacement therapies for age related blindness. Work on the design of biomaterials  for bone  formation  has been studied in detail for bone defects  and bone met- abolic disorders.
In India, stem  cell banking  has established itself as a booming  industry, and a lot of private companies  are extending their service throughout India. The Council of Medical Research has given guidelines for clinical tri- als involving stem cells. Research laboratories of both private and governmental institutions are also actively involved in stem cell research.

We have heard  a lot about  Application of Stem cells in Medical field, e.g.stem cells was used for the treatment of legs of a 26/11 victim in  a Mumbai based  hospital who was completely paralyzed in the attack  , so is there  such other  application that has hap- pened in Medical field?

Talking about  stem cell therapy  treatments, they have been  used  in treating  heart  diseases  using patient’s own stem  cells; fetal brain stem  cells for Parkinson’s disease  have all been  carried  out with mixed results. Stem  cells have also been  used  to promote regener- ation  in various  organs  such  as the  brain and  bone. Stem  cell therapy  has also been  tried for Type I dia- betes   using  hESCs, MSC (mesenchymal stem  cells) in which the  cells are stimulated  to grow into β cells outside the body and are returned back to the patient. Recently, human embryonic stem cells have been used to target and destroy  cancer cells especially leukemia and  lymphomas.   Beside  cancer,  human  embryonic stem  cells have also been  used  as tool for the  treat- ment of various diseases such as diabetes,  Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease  and heart  failure. Repair of the cornea  using stem cell therapy  has been highly successful. Research in NIH has tried treating  eye dis- eases  by  replacing  the  RPE (retinal  pigmented epi- thelium) cells and has developed a method to convert human  embryonic  stem  cells (hESCs) to differentiate into RPE cells. Bone disorders have been treated using osteoblasts derived from mesenchymal stem cells. However, though  some of these  have been successful, there is still a dilemma among  researchers whether  to continue research  on stem cells or to use it directly on patients.  Of course, more insights would increase  our knowledge on stem cells and surely help in better stem cell therapy  treatments. Many hospitals  in India also have  success  stories  in stem  cell therapy  treatments for diseases  such as thalassemia,  but  unless the  lay- man is able to gain the benefits of the treatment it can- not be accepted as a successful mode of treatment.

Besides SRM, what are the premier  orga- nizations/institutions/companies in India & Abroad that are working in Stem Cells? Please shed light.

In India, almost every renowned private hospital boasts of a stem cell research  laboratory, which in future will play a pivot  role in stem  cell therapy  treatment for the  patients.  Private  organizations like Life Cell are involved in stem cell banking in India, Manipal Institute of Stem cells and Regenerative Medicine, The Centre for Stem Cell Research  in CMC, Vellore supported by DBT, Government  of India, Vellore and The Institute for Stem Cell Biology (inStem), Bangalore, Nichi-In Centre for Regenerative Medicine (NCRM) is an institute affil- iated  with the Tamilnadu Dr. MGR Medical University, Madras  Medical  Mission Hospital  and  Frontier  Life Line Hospitals, The Nitte University Centre  for Stem Cell Research and Regenerative Medicine (NUCSReM) has set up a Stem Cell Research  Centre  in KS Hedge Medical Academy, Mangalore.
Internationally, a lot of government and private organi- zations are involved in stem cell research. A few import- ant ones are as follows—The International  Society for Stem  Cell Research  (ICCSR), The International  Stem Cell Forum (ISCF) The International  Society for Stem Cell Research  (ISSCR), Medical Research  Council (MRC). The UK Medical Research Council sponsors  the UK Stem Cell, Canadian Institutes  of Health Research (CIHR), EuroStemCell Eleven academic  institutes  and enterprises, Institute  for Frontier Medical Sciences Kyoto University, Centre for Stem Cell Biology as a part of the University of Sheffield.

What are your words of advice for the young minds aspiring to pick a career  in stem cell biology?

Understanding the  basics  of  Stem  Cell Biology,  its importance in the  scientific  field and  an  interest  in developmental biology  would  surely  be  an  asset  to the students who want to pursue  their career  in stem cell biology. For those  students, who  want  to  work and  contribute in research  areas  like cancer,  diabe- tes, heart  diseases,  stem  cell biology would prove  to be a right choice. Stem  Cell Banking and  counseling on stem  cells would be the other  option for students who want to pursue  their interest  in areas  other  than research.  All students should make it a point to read research  articles regularly and try to analyze and dis- cuss  the  papers  with their  friends  and  teachers and interact  in a Journal  Club to kindle their interest  not only in Stem Cell Biology but also other research areas of their interest. This interaction  will only help them to gain knowledge  and improve  their analytical skills to kindle their young minds.

From a student’s point of view, what are the career  prospects in stem cells?

Research would be the first option. For those not interested  in research,  now-a-days counseling  and  stem cell banking centers  also serve as a career  point and they  can  actively develop  a career  in counseling  on stem cells and banking to the common  people. Since, stem cell research  is a part and parcel of all hospitals; students may opt  for a career  in stem  cell laboratories serving as a bridge between the patients and the doctors. Students can involve in culturing of stem cells for therapy  treatments in hospitals after taking proper training in animal cell culture techniques.