Gene Editing Professor

Scared of blood, biochemistry scholar Tanveer Ahmad decided to get into the sub-microscopic maze of genetic engineering and hunt for cures to critical diseases within the human cell. Two post-doctorates later, he is surely succeeding, writes Khalid Bashir Gura

Dr Tanveer Ahmad with his team of scholars at Jamia Millia

Oblivious to Dr Tanveer Ahmad’s fears, his kith and kin wanted him to traverse conventional careers and become a doctor or an engineer. However, Ahmad was always scared of blood. He did not want to pick a surgeon’s knife. At school, his inquisitive mind wanted to discover something to help humanity.

Years later, the hemophobic boy is now working at Jamia Millia Islamia’s Multidisciplinary Centre for Advanced Research and Studies (MCARS) as Assistant Professor and has led the research on an optogenetic tool that has the potential to be used to understand the basket of brain disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, depression and schizophrenia. His findings are the outcome of collaboration between MCARS and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).  A biological science, optogenetics involves the usage of light in controlling the neuron activity in cells. Dr Tanveer, 39, had done two post-doctorates in the US before joining the MCARS and it was a key in linking the two institutions.

The Learning Curve

A resident of Srinagar, Ahmad joined Amar Singh College for BSc after his twelfth class.  “I did my masters from the University of Kashmir in Biochemistry. After qualifying for a CSIR examination, I joined the Institute of Genomics and Integrated Biology (IGIB),” Tanveer said, where he did his research under Dr Anurag Aggarwal, one of the prominent scientists in India. Dr Aggarwal was his guide in his PhD. “(with another scholar), we worked on a number of projects on genetic engineering of stem cells.”

Soon after completing his doctorate in four years, opportunities started knocking at his door. He joined his first post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Rochester, New York. Soon after, he moved to NIH in the  USA for another post-doctorate.

“In November 2017, I got an offer from Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI). I joined as Assistant Professor as I am heading one of the six laboratories that are part of the MCARS,” he said. He is now guiding a group of PhD scholars who work on creating universal and affordable novel solutions to prevent, diagnose and treat diseases.

Prof Tanveer Ahmad is using genetic engineering in treating critical illnesses. He heads research vertical at Jamila Millia’s MCARS. KL Image: Hilal Shah

Research

Contrary to many who are dispirited during the process of research, Ahmad recalls his journey infused with joy and curiosity. He feels privileged to have had access to the best infrastructure, a guide and resources. “I feel lucky that I had the right guide, lab, environment, and people around me,” Tanveer said as he explored respiratory diseases. “My inclination was always towards genetic engineering. I published 30 papers and the prominent among them is Mesenchymal stem cells wherein stem cells from bone marrow were isolated and through genetic editing, we made them more efficient to fight diseases.”

Tanveer insists that his research is the manifestation of his childhood dreams. Extracting the stem cells and making them powerful and relocating them back into the body has been his dream for a very long time.

When he finally started working on the project for his PhD, what the microscopes showed was amazing. These cells showed effective therapeutic effects for the treatment of respiratory diseases like inflammation in the lungs, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD), and Asthma. These genetically modified cells showed immense therapeutic worth and successfully managed reversal of the lung inflammation.

Explaining the process, Tanveer said the genetically engineered cells are put in a co-culture wherein diseased cells are placed near them. “What was interesting was that the diseased cells started seeking help from healthy cells by developing tubes. The stem cells in turn help in the recovery of diseased cells,” Tanveer said while detailing his research during his PhD. “This was the first revelation in modern science.” This research was published in a reputed international journal, EMBO, and has more than 400 citations, so far.

In his postdoctoral fellowship, Tanveer followed up on his expertise and experience in genetic engineering at the US’s National Institutes of Health (NIH). There, however, he got interested in developing optogenetic tools that can help understand, diagnose and treat neurodegenerative diseases.

Developing Tools

Tanveer’s laboratory has developed two major tools so far. One was at the peak of Covid19 when the laboratory devised a non-intrusive system that would help people self-test for the disease using saliva.  The bio-marker used CRISPR-Cas13 technology. Developed by Tanveer along with his aides Dr Mohan Joshi and Dr Javaid Iqbal, it was a chemical formulation kit which identifies whether the virus is present in the salivary sample of a person or not. “Some companies have taken the technology and it is being used at certain places but we are still waiting for the patent from ICMR (Indian Council for Medical Research) because it is a slightly time-consuming process,” Tanveer said.

Jamia Millia scientists who devised the world’s cheapest saliva-based self-testing Covid-19 kit (L to R) Dr Mohan C Joshi, Dr Tanveer Ahmad, and Dr Jawed Iqbal.

The remarkable thing about the CASSPIT is that it is the first smartphone integrated Covid19 testing kit. The smartphone application MI-SEHAT (Mobile integrated Sensitive Examination and High-specificity Application for testing) developed by the trio uses artificial intelligence-based tools to determine the infectivity in the sample. This kit has a 98 per cent detection rate. “This tool suggested that Covid19 can be detected without RT-PCR,” he said, adding that this kit can detect other respiratory diseases as well.

The second tool that Jamia announced recently was the development of a tool for detecting brain turbulence. “Leveraging the potential of phototropic receptors known as light-oxygen-voltage sensing domains derived from the plant avena sativa (used to derive the common cereal oats, and abbreviated as AsLOV2) the researchers generated innovative chimeric molecular designs by conjugating a light-sensitive domain of LOV2 with a protein called neuregulin3 (NRG3),” Jamia said in a statement. “…diseases like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and depression have genetic polymorphisms in NRG3 due to which it is considered as a susceptible gene for these diseases. Using this innovative tool, the researchers discovered a new mechanism of protein trafficking in hippocampal neurons of the brain which they termed as ‘trans-synaptic retention’.”

Lab Preoccupations

His laboratory operating since 2017, Tanveer said, is using genome editing technique, the CRISPR-Cas to create next-generation therapies with a focus on developing engineered immune and stem cells and vector delivery to effect changes in organisms. Leveraging on the success of recent Covid19 vaccines, and direct in vivo-delivery of the CRISPR-Cas system in humans, the lab is exploring the idea to treat genetic disease and cancer directly without any manipulation of the cells outside the body. It is also working to use allogeneic (same species but genetically different) CAR-T and CAR-NK cells for the treatment of solid tumours, besides B cell malignancies. So far, the laboratory has two patents and many more are in the pipeline.

“All the members of the laboratory are going to be scientists in their own right,” Tanveer said. “We have enough resources and an excellent environment to work and deliver.”

Career Options

Offering his own experience, Prof Tanveer said that the new generation must follow their passions. “My parents and most of my relatives wanted me to be a doctor or an engineer,” Tanveer said. “It took a bit of time but I successfully convinced my parents that my interests lie elsewhere, although not outside science and that is what is helping me now to enjoy what I do.”

Tanveer said the knowledge economy is changing fast. “There are countless careers within science such as artificial intelligence and genetic engineering and these are opening new windows for fresh minds,” he said.

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