By: B Ravindran
The Research: Studying the science related to infectious diseases, and gene function and regulation. Plus, translational research that can lead to drug or vaccine discoveries.
My own research is on biology of nematodes or worms. My research group, which includes three PhD students and two post-doctoral fellows, is investigating how these worms, most measuring a few centimetres, some even bigger, enter human organs and remain there for prolonged periods without being repelled by the immune system.
On most occasions, the stay of these worms in human bodies is rather uneventful, causing very little harm. Most of the children in India, especially in rural areas, carry worms in their intestines and get rid of them in due course, but no significant harm is done. Considering how common worm infections are, an extraordinarily small percentage of people show adverse effects or develop diseases caused by them.
This is in sharp contrast to much smaller microscopic organisms like pathogenic viruses or bacteria whose entry into the human body results in strong reaction by the immune system, often leading to it repelling them. Viral and bacterial infections lead to a host of diseases as well.
It was during this investigation that my group recently came up with a surprise discovery that can prove very useful in dealing with sepsis kind of situations, in which organs malfunction because of bacterial or viral infections. Severe sepsis leading to shock is often fatal even in developed countries.
What causes this condition is the agitated state of phagocytes, individual cells that can be seen as policemen of the body. The phagocytes get into an ‘angry’ mode to fight bugs like bacteria and virus that come into the body. But they need to get back to normalcy and the body has an internal mechanism to do this. Sepsis is caused when these phagocytes remain massively hyper-active and unregulated.
Currently, there are no drugs to cure sepsis — antibiotics are useful in removing bacteria but in not regulating the immune system.
Our research group discovered a molecule that ‘silences’ these phagocytes. The molecule was originally identified in filarial worms but we have seen them in other worms as well. It has been tested on animal models and was effective in regulating ‘angry’ phagocytes. It is a single molecule, its structure has been identified to be a carbohydrate, and it can be synthesised in a lab. Therefore, the potential of this molecule getting converted into a drug is very high. It can be used to handle not only sepsis but other diseases such as autoimmune diseases.
Meanwhile, the main investigation of the research — how do large organisms like worms manage to sit inside human bodies for years without being expelled — goes on.
Ravindran is the Director of Institute of life sciences, Bhubaneswar.