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Future research goals at Narayana Nethralaya, GROW laboratories

The basic research at GROW labs- (Genes, repair and regeneration at opthalmic workstation), with a tagline of “bridging bench to the clinic”aims at utilising the large inflow of patients here for strategic patient-directed biomedical research for early diagnosis, prevention and therapy.

The research at GROW labs have been undertaken in major opththalmic disease areas covering both clinical and basic research aspects of the various target diseases.We are deriving rational projects based on patient data and following up with genetic, transcriptomic and proteomic investigations in diseases like Keratoconus, diabetic retinopathy, RP, ocular tumors, glaucoma, etc. This basic research is helping uncover mechanisms underlying disease pathology, which will be further confirmed in in vitro or in vivo preclinical models. The genetic and molecular basis of the diseases will then be validated within patient cohort clinical data followed by design of gene and stem cell therapies. The data obtained should yield biomarkers of diagnostic and prognostic value as well as potential therapeutic intervention points. Aside from this, the gene and stem cell therapy technologies will be developed concurrently as a general platform to directly start research on preclinical disease models for testing efficacy, safety etc. The long term goal will be to establish a solid foundation of preclinical research that can serve as a platform for future clinical trials. Our aim is to transform clinical medicine with the help of a deeper understanding of the disease process hand-in-hand with clinicians and clinical practice.

Cracking the Gene Code

It’s easy to make tea. But what if you don’t have vessels, a stove or ingredients? Dr Arka Subhra Ghosh, 35, is aiming to solve this conundrum, not about tea, but about genetic defects.

Ghosh loves questions, science and comic books, though maybe not in that order. And he believes that if one has “cool tools” like Batman or Iron Man, all answers are just round the corner. “Science fiction of today is science of tomorrow. Even stuff like Captain Kirk’s ‘Beam me up, Scotty,’ in the hit sci-fi series Star Trek, will happen soon,” he says with conviction.

Inspired by the anything-is-possible spirit, popularised by Aamir Khan’s character Rancho in the film 3 Idiots, Ghosh left his job at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Singapore and moved lock, stock and barrel to Bangalore looking for “answers”. A PhD in Gene Therapy from the University of Missouri-Columbia, US, Ghosh is setting up an ambitious lab called Genes Repair, Regeneration in Opthalmic Workstation (GROW), to research genetic defects. Said to be the first such lab in India, it will be set up at the premier Narayana Nethralaya eye hospital, with an initial investment of Rs.3.5 crore. Ghosh would begin with research on eye-related genetic defects like dry eyes, coning of the retina (keratoconus) and eye cancer (retinoblastoma). “The aim is to develop gene and cell therapy as a platform for not only ocular diseases, but other genetic diseases and cancers as well,” Ghosh says.

According to him, gene therapy technology is simple: “We use a benign virus or a nano particle like a courier. We take out the virus’s own genes and fill in the shell with the material we want to send to the defective gene. When this courier reaches its destination, it will provoke the gene to generate the required proteins and correct the genetic problem.”

Narayana Nethralaya vice-chairperson Dr Rohit Shetty, the brain behind GROW, tells India Today, “We hope to raise philanthropic grants and take forward gene therapy, which I feel, will find solutions for genetic defects faster than stem cells. There is not much awareness of gene therapy in India and we need to change that.”

When Ghosh and his fellow-geneticist wife Anuprita went to study to the US in 2002, they were firm that they would bring back the Western scientific culture and apply it to India. He is now putting together a diverse team of doctors, scientists, chemists, engineers and stem cell researchers to make the lab a direct link between doctors, who deal with actual problems and scientists, who find solutions. “Once our laboratories are set up, we will be able to collaborate and compete with other laboratories worldwide in the field of molecular medicine,” he explains.

His son Advin, 7, is not told that rainbows are God’s way of sprinkling love on the world. “I explained to him the refraction of light that causes rainbows,” Ghosh admits.

Ghosh’s father, Prajit, a retired nuclear scientist, gave his son the love for science. “I didn’t top my classes in school. I am just an average guy.” Just like every superhero often claims.
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