Indian researcher gains rare US funding

from The Times of India

NEW DELHI: An Indian scientist has joined a lucrative $17 million science program in Australia. The peak United States’ medical science funding body, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), launched the program last month. Australia’s La Trobe University — where Dr Suresh Mathivanan works — is the only institution outside America selected to take part in the five-year program.

The program comprises a consortium of more than 30 universities involved in 24 research projects and will probe the next frontier in the search for biological molecules to diagnose and treat diseases including cancer. Mathivanan is from Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu. In India, he completed both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in science — zoology and biotechnology respectively — and then a postgraduate diploma in bioinformatics. He completed his PhD in proteomics and bioinformatics at the Institute of Bioinformatics, India and then at the Johns Hopkins University, USA. In 2008 he came to Australia to join the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research in Melbourne, as a postdoctoral researcher. In 2011, he received two more fellowships, one which led him to conduct research at the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science (LIMS).

Currently Mathivanan heads a team of ten biochemistry researchers at LIMS. He says the special form of RNA being studied in the NIH project — known as extracellular RNA or exRNA — travels around the body in little packages called exosomes and plays an important role in the way cells regulate and express genes. For example, he says one potential application of these exosomes is in targeted gene delivery to treat cancer. “Recently, there is significant interest in the use of exosomes as personalised targeted drug delivery vehicles for therapeutic use and as a source of biomarkers for disease diagnosis.’ With this additional funding from NIH and new discoveries, one day it may be possible to use exosomes as delivery vehicles targeting RNA in breast or colorectal cancer tissues to control the amount of deleterious proteins.”

La Trobe University deputy vice-chancellor, Research, Professor Keith Nugent said US-based NIH support for foreign institutions including Australian researchers was extremely rare. He said Mathivanan will take part in the program which aims to advance critical research into a recently discovered way by which cells in our body communicate with each other via Ribonucleic acid (RNA), the single strand cousin of DNA. “The $375 000 grant and his role in the program signifies high-level recognition for the calibre of Mathivanan’s work and La Trobe’s leadership in research focused at understanding disease,” said professor Nugent. Mathivanan says the overall program, which is funded for more than $17 million, is split into five projects.

The bioinformatics project deals with the storage, analysis and dissemination of research data generated through the NIH-funded consortium through a web portal, so that any significant discoveries in the field can be enlisted as quickly as possible in the fight against cancer. La Trobe University is working on the bioinformatics project with Professor AleksandarMilosavljevic’s group at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.

Other US institutions involved are Yale University (Professor Mark Gerstein), the Pacific Northwest Diabetes Research Institute (Professor David Galas), and a number of campuses of the University of California. A NH&MRC Biomedical Research and LIMS Fellow, Mathivanan, attributes his success in becoming part of this prestigious project to the support from LIMS, five years of research into exosomes and colorectal cancer, and a joint research article published last year in PLOS Biology which involved the collaboration of 70 research labs in his field from around the world.

Mathivanan, a PhD candidate in biotechnology, encourages people to consider studying in Australia. Students from all study levels are given access to world-class laboratories such as those in the new A$100million La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science. “You get a lot of hands-on experience here. I didn’t have those kinds of opportunities in my earlier years of study,” he says. “Whoever is coming here for undergraduate or postgraduate studies will immensely benefit from that.” Around two-thirds of Mathivanan’s team of researchers, and many of his pupils, are international students from India, mostly studying a Master of Biotechnology and Bioinformatics.

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