Decoding cancer

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Decoding cancer

Dr Chandrika Deshpande has made it her life’s mission to understand human diseases and work towards better treatment

“Centenary Institute is well equipped with the state-of-art equipment and facilities required to conduct cutting edge medical research. With various groups focusing on different aspects of cancer and other diseases, the possibility for mutual exchange of scientific ideas and automated techniques is endless”
Dr Deshpande’s two pet projects are research on a protein that plays a major role in blood related disorders such as anaemia; and a protein called breast cancer resistance protein (BCRP) that plays a very important role in breast cancer biology and understanding this protein would be an important step towards better treatment against breast cancer.

Cancer is not a new disease. It Is believed to have afflicted people for several centuries. A study into the history of cancer shows that Hippocrates described several kinds of cancer which included drawings of the tumours on the skin, nose and breasts. I was first introduced to this disease via the character of Bhaskar played by Rajesh Khanna in the movie ‘Anand’ and as a young girl I thought that the disease existed only in movies until my classmate’s brother was diagnosed with cancer and very soon succumbed to the disease.

Though we have moved away from the times when the word ‘cancer’ was shrouded with mystery, it instils fear in everybody’s mind. Cancer does not discriminate and annoyingly even people who lead perfectly healthy lives can be consumed in its throes.

Dr Chandrika Deshpande, a researcher at the Centenary Institute in Sydney is working in this very vital and important field. Centenary Institute’s current projects focus on some of the most prevalent cancers – prostate, liver, breast, lung, melanoma and leukaemia. Dr Deshpande is committed to pursuing an enduring career in the area of breast cancer research and this according to her grows out of an amalgamation of many factors. The passion was first ignited when she was working towards the creation of a Cancer Cell Map at the Institute of Bioinformatics in Bengaluru. While the scientist in her was fascinated to understand the molecular mechanisms underlying the complexity of cancer, the woman in her recognised the necessity to beat breast cancer completely.

Before starting her current project on Breast Cancer Resistance Protein, with an in-depth research into the statistics of breast cancer, Dr Deshpande realized that despite improved treatment the disease continues to impact the lives of a large population of woman across the globe. The resistance of the cancer cells to the drugs eliminates the assurance of a complete cure giving rise to that nagging fear and doubt in the mind of every woman undergoing treatment – “what if the disease recurs?”

Though important discoveries continue to be made in the prevention and cure of breast cancer, there is still a lot more to be learnt and done.  Dr Deshpande’s research at the Centenary Institute involves structural and functional characterization of important bacterial and eukaryotic membrane proteins.

Dr Deshpande’s ongoing work has been recognized with co-authorship in five publications (including Nature communications, The FEBS journal). She received the prestigious Postdoctoral Fellowship (2012 – 2015) from the National Breast Cancer Foundation and the University of Sydney’s Early Career Researcher Grant (2013). Prior to her PhD, she worked on several projects at the Institute of Bioinformatics in Bengaluru. Her contributions to these projects were also recognized with co-authorships in leading international journals like the Nature Genetics, Nucleic Acids Research and Genome Research. She also led a team of 15 young interns and worked towards the creation of the Cancer Cell Map — a selected set of cancer focused pathways.

Even as a child Dr Deshpande was fascinated by Science and so that was her natural choice of subject for specialization. During her PhD, she worked on some interesting genes (though not directly related to disease) from Vibrio cholera (the organism causing cholera). After completing her PhD, she wanted to pursue her research in the field of human diseases. She joined Dr Mika Jormakka at the Centenary Institute and got to work with him on some interesting, challenging and significant molecules associated with human diseases. “Centenary Institute is well equipped with the state-of-art equipment and facilities required to conduct cutting edge medical research. With various groups focusing on different aspects of cancer and other diseases, the possibility for mutual exchange of scientific ideas and automated techniques is endless,” says Dr Deshpande.

Growing up in a family that motivated her to follow her passion, Dr Deshpande fondly remembers her father who always encouraged her. She said, “My dad came from a humble background and wanted to pursue higher education, however the circumstances and his financial background in those days did not allow him to do so. As such, he understood and valued the importance of education and instilled the same in me and always encouraged me to pursue my studies.” With her husband being a postdoctoral fellow, the duo motivate each other to carry on with their research in spite of many stumbling blocks. She gives great credit to her PhD supervisor Dr Bridget Mabbutt who she says mentored and guided her. “I call her my ‘Science mum’,” she says.

“Understanding human diseases and working towards better treatment keeps me motivated to work harder,” says Dr Deshpande. Presently her two pet projects are research on a protein (confidential) that plays a major role in blood related disorders such as anaemia; and a protein called breast cancer resistance protein (BCRP) that plays a very important role in breast cancer biology and understanding this protein would be an important step towards better treatment against breast cancer. This project was funded by National Breast Cancer Foundation for four years.

Currently, one of the most effective treatments for cancer is chemotherapy, which Dr Deshpande explains, typically uses a combination of toxic drugs that are absorbed by cancer cells, rapidly killing them. However, over time cancer cells develop resistance to chemotherapy drugs, which essentially means that increased dosages are required to get the same effect. But unfortunately the increased dose dramatically increases the side effects of these drugs. She says that a method of reducing this drug resistance in cancer would increase the effectiveness of existing chemotherapy treatments.

Without delving into too many details, Dr Deshpande explains that one of the theories of how multi-drug chemotherapy resistance comes about is through the increased activity of ‘pumps’ (transporter proteins) that sit on the ‘surface’ (cellular membrane) of cancer cells. These proteins are believed to actively pump drugs out of the cancer cells before they can kill them. One of the most important of these proteins is the Breast Cancer Resistance Protein (BCRP), which she has been working on for the past four years and was funded by the NBCF. The first step in developing a drug to block BCRP is to understand its full three dimensional structure as the drugs that block the transporter proteins work like a lock and key. As her expertise is in the field of structural biology, her aim is to identify the 3D structure of a protein. The molecular architecture can then pave the way for identifying a drug that will selectively block BCRP, and go a long way towards eliminating chemotherapy drug resistance.   Hence, her research project through a basic science approach addresses the need for improved health care for cancer patients by facilitating the design and development of more effective drugs.

The 20th century saw the greatest progression in cancer research. Research identifying carcinogens, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and better means of diagnosis were discovered. Medical research is vital as it not only helps build our knowledge and understanding of the disease but also enables researchers to turn their attention to improving detection and diagnosis of the disease as well as provide better, more targeted cancer treatments and patient care. We now know that cancer diagnosed at an early stage, before it’s had the chance to get too big or spread to other organs of the body has a better chance of being treated successfully. The number of cancer survivors has grown over the past 40 years. Researchers like Dr Deshpande are assisting in increasing our understanding of the ways in which cancer and cancer treatment can impact the quality of life of the survivors. They are identifying ways to enhance the quality of life for cancer survivors and their families.  Yet lack of funding for research is the biggest barrier faced by scientists today. Considering how important the field of research is and how significant the outcomes are, Dr Deshpande feels that not enough funding is being dedicated to research by the government and other sources.

Dr Deshpande however sees these challenges as her source of motivation. “These challenges motivate us to work harder towards our goals, such that our research is recognized by and beneficial to a larger number of people”. Going forward she hopes that the funding scenario in Australia gets better and more conducive to encourage research scientists to concentrate more on their research rather than worrying about holding a job. Though still young in her research career, Dr Deshpande, like every other dedicated scientist, envisages that in the future she will head a group of her own where the program will be well funded so she can pursue her research ideas in breast cancer with a group of driven students and post doctorates. According to her the two deadly ‘C’s – Cardiovascular Disorder and Cancer – pose the biggest health challenge today. Our food habits and the environment, both can be seen as contributing factors. Whilst the research over the years has made it possible to find a cure for many forms of cardiovascular problems and cancer (when detected early), there is still lot more research to be done to completely eradicate these problems. Her simple message to the readers is, “Life is short, live healthy and enjoy it to the fullest. Do your bit to support the scientists and the field of cancer research.”

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