India Alliance Fellow Spotlight: Dr. Satish Khurana
01 Aug 2018
Dr. Satish Khurana is an India Alliance Intermediate Fellow at IISER Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. His lab is interested in understanding the regulatory mechanisms underlying hematopoietic stem cell (HSCs).
Please tell us what you are working on and what impact do you hope it will have?
SK: My lab works in the area of stem cells and regenerative medicine. This field has been receiving a lot of attention due to the immense potential it holds that can change the way clinicians treat many of the diseases today. More specifically, we are interested in understanding the regulatory mechanisms in hematopoietic system (blood cell formation). This is one system where the use of adult stem cells called hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) are being used world over for the treatment of a variety of diseases. For example, in the case of cancer treatment, bone marrow transplantation is performed to recover the injury to hematopoietic system following radio- or chemotherapy. The involvement of donors presents a big hurdle in these cases, so possibility of taking patients’ own stem cells, expanding them in the lab and transplanting them back seems like a good idea but hasn't been possible yet. In addition, umbilical cord blood derived cells, which are available freely and is a clinical waste today, is a very interesting source of these stem cells. In my view, understanding the key regulatory mechanisms would enable us to harness the true potential of HSCs in clinic. In my lab we are exploring integrin signaling and metabolic pathways involved in stem cell function and hope to uncover some of these pathways that can be clinically relevant.
What have been some discoveries that have surprised you while studying the hematopoietic stem cell apparatus?
SK: Well, I think anybody working in the field of stem cells in general, will agree that the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) was a special one. In principle it proves that any cell of our body can be converted into pluripotent stem cells (PSCs), the cells that can give rise to any cell type of our body. It has been possible to diferentiate these PSCs into a wide variety of cell types including HSCs. However, the function of these cells upon transplantation remains very limited. But you can see that this principle itself is very interesting and promising, as it gives us an unlimited source of stem cells that, if functional, will be immensely important. Currently, there are a number of labs across the world which are trying to make these cells functional. In this case as well, understanding of key regulatory mechanisms that lead to functional maturation is very important. So, we are working in that direction.
What motivated you to become a scientist?
SK: Not very sure about this. I think temperamentally I have always been curious, even as a child, and have wanted to explore things. Scientific research gives huge scope to explore. I love the feeling of being lost, and to finally find a way out. What better way than to get lost in biological questions, answers to which generate several other questions. This field, kind of satisfies your senses so probably, “bioenergetically” it had to happen.
Is there a research area other than yours that interests you deeply?
SK: I really like the field of developmental biology, a branch of biology that studies the processes by which organisms grow. After taking the independent position at IISER Thiruvananthapuram, I started to look at hematopoiesis in developmental context and my lab is becoming more and more interested in this. In fact, a large part of my India Alliance project focusses on these aspects and I am almost sure that the first manuscript coming out of the lab will have some developmental context. Apart from that, I am really interested in the field of Biophysics, specially the studies in context of how cells behave. It is fascinating how tissues change physically and mechanically during development, even in the case of a disease. How these mechanical forces play a role in determining the functional outcome has always intrigued me but I have taken no steps in this direction thus far. Hope to do something in that direction once our lab is established completely.
What are some of the challenges of a young research institution (such as yours) in India and can you offer any possible solutions to overcome these?
SK: “Things go slow here” is probably the most common grievance that you will hear in our country. You will get the same sense across the spectrum, not just from research community. Biological research relies heavily on large number of consumables, reagents and equipment. Most often, you will not find the company outlet based in India as they operate through distributors. The checks and balances in place for procurement without paying unfair prices are time consuming. I find it very hard to follow these rules while making sure that I get the best quality or best suited product for our experiments. Little adjustment in general financial rules (GFRs), for example, might be helpful. It is very obvious that one needs to go into the details and I do not find myself competent enough to make specific suggestions. We would have to put some administrative and academic “heads” together to find solutions.
How has Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance funding helped you and your research?
SK: India Alliance Fellowship gives a lot of freedom. It is a comprehensive support that gives plenty of space to focus on research without getting bothered about arranging funds to set up your lab. Regular review makes it easier for the young PIs to make decisions on which research directions to follow and that helps prioritizing. The research community that India Alliance brings together is absolutely fantastic, people willing to offer help and are open for discussion without any inhibitions. You get a lot of suggestions during India Alliance Annual Fellows’ meetings. I am also looking forward to attending some very good courses being offered, such as the course on research leadership. I think Indian science has really been helped by the efforts of India Alliance.
What keeps you going every day?
SK: The profession, if you call it so, that we are in, is quite inspiring and motivating. One of the most interesting aspects of being in this field is the closeness with the young minds. At my current institution, we get young students, just out from school and eager to learn and explore, very curious, and ready to take risks. That in my mind is very crucial for any institution that runs on creativity. Talking to the students and colleagues about experiments and projects is always refreshing. So, the day is always brimming with academic, administrative and research activities, which is great but often tiring. For a father, I guess, a daughter is always there to make everything right at the end of the day. So life basically is full and if it wasn't where was the fun.
and finally, if you were not a scientist, you would be.
SK: It is quite hard to imagine a life that does not involve scientific research but I think curiosity would have anyway driven me towards an exploratory and adventurous life. Predictability becomes too boring, creativity keeps us alive. I am an avid traveller and like reading about history. It is difficult to imagine myself as anything but a research – but perhaps a detective or a tourist guide, would have been nice options too. However, the three things that I am sure I would have never pursed; being a doctor, having anything to do with flying and anything to do with accounting.