Combating Cancer

A US-based Kashmiri neuroscientist is lauded for his path-breaking discovery against cancer world over. He tells Shakir Mir that a cancer-free Kashmir is his dream 

Dr Khalid Shah’s therapy to treat brain tumour has now been acknowledged as one of the 12 technologies that will impact patient care in near future.

The term cancer would normally precipitate a sense of extreme terror amongst people. At a time when many Kashmiris are rushing to treat the condition outside the state hoping that treatment would be more effective, a Kashmir-born American neuroscientist is doing rounds across the medical sphere for his path-breaking discovery of using Stem cells to cure brain tumours more successfully than done before.

Dr Khalid Shah, born and brought up in Kashmir, is an Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School in Boston, USA. Dr Shah who speaks in chaste Kashmiri has studied medicine in Europe. He is one of few Kashmiri scientists whose studies have been published in renowned medical journals like Nature Neuroscience, PNAS, Nature Reviews Cancer, JNCI, and Lancet Oncology.

Egged on by motivation to mete out help, Dr Shah unveiled his efforts last month at Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS), to revolutionize treating tumour through a novel process that involves tinkering with biological Stem cells and programming them to eradicate tumour – a development that has drawn immense media attention of late.

“Every tumour cell has different surface receptors,” Dr Shah explains to Kashmir Life. A receptor is basically an antenna-like appendage on the surface of a cell that receives chemical signals from outside. “There are different surface receptors for different tumour cells and we engineer Stem cells based on those targets.”

Stem cells can be isolated from bone marrow, fats, dental pulp, and umbilical cord.

Dr Khalid’s research envisages fighting cancer in a two-pronged strategy one of which involves engineering Stem cells to release a cancer-killing substance called S-TRAIL (Secreted Tumor Necrosis factor Receptor-Apoptosis Inducing Ligand). This killer protein then specifically binds to receptors that are only present on tumor cells and not on the normal cells, bringing about their death. The second method of action involves cutting off the “feed” supply to growing tumour cells thus preventing them from acquiring malignancy, a concept that is called anti-angiogenesis in medical parlance.

Dr Shah’s discovery has been significant in a way that it overcomes a key drawback of normal tumour treatment where systemic drugs don’t reach the brain because “there is a certain level of toxicity in them.” Dr Shah and his team have figured out ways to deliver the medicine through a biodegradable gel acting as a medium.

Even though research in this field is being carried out across many parts of India and the world, what sets Dr Shah’s effort apart is the prospect of translating it into patients. “We have figured out those ways using mouse models and patient-derived cells,” he says. “That has been our major contribution.”

If everything goes according to the plan, the dividend of his research success will also alleviate the troubles of thousands of cancer patients across the valley in a few years to come. Dr Shah says he is working out a roadmap to translate these therapies into clinics in Kashmir. Apparently SKIMS has been in talks with Dr Shah for setting up a Stem cell facility for augmenting the quality of research and treatment of cancer in the valley.

“I had a conversation with SKIMS Director who was very favourable to the initiative,” he says. “We have a roadmap and just need the basic infrastructure now where we can start.”

Not only would the facility be used to effectively treat brain tumours, but it can also be used to cure any other cancer type, Dr Shah reveals.

“This is the future. If you want to do something in the next five years, you have to start somewhere now,” he says while specifically stressing the need to build the infrastructure. “I feel we have very capable people in Kashmir but we lack infrastructure.”

Dr Shah feels that Kashmiris wouldn’t have to rush to Delhi or elsewhere in India if such a facility was built here. “Then we can bring in new therapies that my lab in the US has developed,” he says, with an air of optimism. “We need that infrastructure.”

Dr Shah has been leading the chorus to raise the status of Stem cell research in Kashmir which he feels is fine, if not significant. “It needs an up-gradation,” he says.

If it is agreed to work on a certain project and there are certain deadlines, the government must fund it and make it happen, he says. “Today I can also work remotely,” he says. “I keep coming once or twice a year. My desire is always to help out.”

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