‘Cancer Continues To Be the Biggest Challenge For Science’

Biochemist Dr Arsheed A Ganaie has worked on Tuberculosis, prostate cancer and pancreatic cancer during his research within and outside India. At Watson and Crick Centre for Molecular Medicine, a research centre at the  IUST, he is working to develop biomarkers for various diseases. In a freewheeling interview with Masood Hussain, he explains why cancer continues to be the single biggest challenge for the scientific community

KASHMIR LIFE (KL): What are the key challenges that your field of science is facing at present?

DR ARSHEED A GANAIE (DAAG): Overall the biggest challenge is to find the cure for cancer. The cancer cells respond to the therapies at first but after some time, the cancer relapses. The question that lies there is how they relapse and why they do not respond to the therapies. Also, certain types of cancers do not have therapy or a cure. The science is moving towards precision oncology, which means that particular cancer will have a particular diagnosis and treatment.

For now, we are treating cancer like ‘one treatment fit for all’. We do not have a different diagnoses for varied cancers. There are many chemotherapies and drugs like Doxorubicin and Cisplatin that go in used against cancers. This, however, is not according to the trend that should overcome cancer. The main issue is to find out and treat the driver. So, the cancer field is the basic challenge right now.

KL: Before we go into your accomplishments as a young scientist, can you offer us details about your learning curve till you landed in the IUST?

 DAAG: I live in the Pampore. I was schooled at Islamia High School, Pulwama. Then I joined Iqbal Memorial Institute in Bemina and moved to SP College for a bachelor’s in biochemistry. I did my masters in biotechnology from the University of Kashmir.

During my masters, in one of the semesters, we had to go for research training at Regional Research Laboratory (RRL), Jammu for six months. It was in the midst of that, that I accomplished my Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) conducted by CSIR.

Then, however, I was unsure whether I would opt for research or go for Kashmir Administrative Service (KAS). I was baffled and perplexed to choose between the two career options. Eventually, I had a senior in the chemistry field, who motivated me on taking research areas. Post JRF, I took the admission for my PhD at CSIR’s Institute of Microbial Technology in 2008 which is considered India’s finest laboratory. There, I worked with a scientist Charu Sharma who worked on Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Ultimately, it took me six years to complete my PhD in 2015.

For further research, I went to the USA and joined the University of Minnesota, where I worked for five years on cancer. There, I was promoted as an assistant professor.

In 2021, I acquired the Ramalingaswami Fellowship, which was conducted by the Department of Bio-Technology, Government of India, and then joined the Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST). I along with other colleagues established the Watson-Crick Centre for Molecular Medicine. We have more than 10 extramural projects, which we are working on right now and we have around Rs 5 crore of funding for the research.

KL: What were the takeaways from your PhD?

 DAAG: I worked on Mycobacterium tuberculosis host-pathogen interaction and how it impacted the human body. Usually, when bacteria enter the human body, the immune system helps in clearing the body of the infection. But Mycobacterium tuberculosis is an immensely clever pathogen that stays inside the body and slowly kills the cells inside. So, we studied the mechanism that how and why is it so pathogenic and how it hijacks the host cellular machinery. We studied how the bacterium secretes certain proteins in our body and how those proteins take over certain important functions of our body, and the immune system.

Eventually, we took a protein namely Exported Repetitive Protein(ERP), and researched that. We saw how this protein efficiently allows M. tuberculosis to survive inside human macrophage cells.

Then I worked on the two strains of the Mycobacterium that were pathogenic and non-pathogenic to locate the difference in hijacking Host-machinery, which was also included in the thesis of my PhD.

Dr Arsheed A Ganai (WCCMM-IUST)

KL: How was your research relevant to the ground-level managing Tuberculosis?

DAAG: Tuberculosis was to some extent controlled widely throughout the world but unfortunately it returned in India after some time with new strains like (MDR-TB), a multidrug-resistant strain and an Extensively drug-resistant (XDR) strain. What we saw was that the protein we worked on, which was found in Mycobacterium Tuberculosis was also evolving itself in these TB strains and was relevant according to the diagnosis of the strains.

KL: What was the main focus of your Postdoc?

DAAG: When I went for my postdoc, I accomplished President’s Post Doc Fellowship, in which I used to get US $60,000 a year through US Federal Government. There, I focused on prostate cancer and pancreatic cancer. There were approximately three lakh people who suffered from prostate cancer every year and from that record 35000 used to die. Among the various assorted cancers, prostate cancer is considered the second deadliest disease in America. In today’s time, out of every ten people, one is diagnosed with prostate cancer. This type of cancer is known to be activated around the age of 65 and more and in this age span, out of ten, six are diagnosed with prostate cancer.

In my postdoc, my main focus was on Androgen Deprivation Therapy (ADT) and the drugs related to that. This therapy used to work at first and treat cancer but later on, it aggressively lapsed and eventually leads to no response and metastasis. So, we researched on what was the reason and mechanism behind the no response and lapse of the therapy and cancer becoming more malignant. We put to use the samples of the patients and transgenic mice model to find out the mechanism behind it. We utilized three things, consisting of Transcriptomics, Genomics, and Omics Technology to find out the gene, molecule, or protein responsible for the resistance to the therapy.

The Awantipora Molecule

 KL: How was your research career relevant to cancer management?

 DAAG: When I returned home, I saw that in India, the metropolitan cities, like Delhi, Mumbai, and Kerala, prostate cancer was the second largest disease to be found. From 1991 till now it has jumped up to 40percent. Then I found out that overall India only 10 to 12 from every 10000 people get diagnosed with prostate cancer, which is quite less in comparison to the United States of America.

In the context of Kashmir, it is found to be less than that. Later, I studied the reasons behind it – was it because of screening failure, under-reporting, or was it because of some essential and effective routine? Then we sent the proposal to the Government of India, and we got a Rs 50 lakh fund to study this aspect.

This research has already started and we have collaborators in SKIMS and GMC. Within two to three years, we are going to figure out what is the actual objective of it.

KL: What else are you busy with?

DAAG: Right now, we also have one more project, again funded by the Government of India, on neuroendocrine prostate cancer. We are not yet aware of the drivers of this type of cancer. Also, prostate cancer normally has a gene called an androgen receptor, which is the main driver but in neuroendocrine prostate cancer, we do not have any therapies, biomarkers, or clues of its drivers available. So, tackling and diagnosing this type of cancer is quite challenging. Therefore, the Government of India has sanctioned us Rs 10.3 million in funds to work on this issue and within five years, the results will be out.

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