University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA (2007-2012)
National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, India
I was exposed to a career in science early in life and consequently took the decision to pursue research in molecular biology. During my teenage years I attended a global environment youth convention at Lund University, Sweden, which exposed me to the scale and capacity of research throughout the world. Several years later I attended a workshop on molecular biology conducted by National University of Singapore at my high school where I got a chance to isolate DNA from tomato. These meetings coincided with the release of the first draft of the human genome project and piqued my interest in molecular biological research and its impact on society. I realized that I had found my calling and wanted to become a scientist.
I pursued a bachelor’s degree of engineering in biotechnology at Panjab University, Chandigarh and my Ph.D. from University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. In a tumor virology laboratory, under the mentorship of Dr. Yuan Chang and Dr. Patrick Moore, who have jointly discovered two cancer causing viruses, I analyzed how a newly discovered (2008) human tumor virus called Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCV) specifically caused a rare, lethal skin cancer called Merkel cell carcinoma. I generated antibodies to detect and diagnose viral oncoproteins and studied MCV's expression patterns in MCC and other cancers. I also discovered a link between MCV proteins and an anti-apoptotic protein called survivin. Using this link I explored the mechanism by which the virus evades cell death. Using survivin as a therapeutic target I tested a survivin-specific drug called YM155 pre-clinically on MCC cell lines and xenograft mouse models of MCC. Research work done during my thesis led to an antibody against the virus now being used in the clinic for diagnosis of MCC, the identification of a therapeutic target (survivin) and a compound with promising treatment potential. It has also contributed to MCV being declared as a carcinogen (Group-2A) by the World Health Organization.
A question that intrigued me, during my PhD years, was how even after effective treatment, a few circulating cancer cells would remain in a patient and cause recurrence after certain years. There are several theories that attempt to explain this phenomenon varying from the survival of cancer stem cells after therapy to the existence of dormancy of few cancer cells post treatment. The idea of dormancy in cancer interested me and I decided to understand the concept of quiescence in my post-doctoral research, albeit from a different perspective. I joined Prof. Jyotsna Dhawan's laboratory at inStem and studied tumor suppressor proteins (RIZ and RB) that regulate quiescence in muscle stem cells.
However, cancer research, being my first love, attracted me back. Under the guidance of Prof. Sudhir Krishna, at NCBS, I now want to explore the shared mechanisms between carcinogenesis and stemness using MCV as a model. With the Early Career Fellowship I hope to further the understanding of tumor viruses causing cancer.