Photograph by sudok1/iStock/Thinkstock
Photograph by sudok1/iStock/Thinkstock

Virtual Research Collaboration

A virtual center for Indian and American biomedical researchers aims to pool research on non-communicable diseases.

Now, more than ever, society needs brilliant minds and dedicated people like Sanjay V. Malhotra to help combat cancer. As the professor (research) of radiation oncology (radiation and cancer biology) and radiology (molecular imaging program) at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, Malhotra is working to further our understanding of the disease and how to better treat it.

Malhotra and his co-principal investigator, Kanury V.S. Rao, from the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute in Faridabad, Haryana, created a virtual center, the Center for Integrative Biology of Non-Communicable Diseases, for biomedical researchers in India and the United States to collaborate to learn more about the biomolecular networks that link non-communicable diseases like cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Last year, the center won funding from the nonprofit Indo-U.S. Science and Technology Forum (IUSSTF) to aid its efforts.

Excerpts from an interview with Malhotra.


Why did you want to start a virtual center for American and Indian biomedical researchers?

Non-communicable diseases are one of the major health and development challenges of the 21st century, in terms of both the human suffering they cause and the harm they inflict on the socioeconomic fabric of countries. As per the 2011 report from the World Health Organization, more than 36 million people dies globally in 2008 due to non-communicable diseases (63 percent of global deaths), including 14 million people who died before the age of 70. More than 90 percent of these premature deaths from non-communicable diseases occurred in low- and middle-income countries, and could have largely been prevented. Most premature deaths are linked to common risk factors, namely tobacco use, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and harmful use of alcohol.

A large number of recent epidemiological and prospective studies link metabolic syndrome (MetS) as a major cause for non-communicable diseases. MetS is a chronic progressive disorder and a global public health concern. Importantly, while MetS was traditionally thought to afflict the elderly, recent years have seen increasing incidences in the younger population. This is largely a result of lifestyle changes where the effect of reduced physical activity is compounded by the increased consumption of high-calorie diets. It is the emergence of this latter phenomenon that warns of an impending public health catastrophe for India.

The economic consequences of non-communicable diseases, mainly cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes, are enormous, both at the micro- and macroeconomic levels. Therefore, our objective in creating the Center for Integrative Biology of Non-Communicable Diseases is to bring experts from both countries together and employ the latest scientific tools to develop a better understanding of the underlying variables of non-communicable diseases and defining their relationship, to eventually develop new therapies.


What are the standard operating procedures for researchers to share and analyze information? Please share an example of a project the virtual center is working on.

The main focus is to capitalize on the scientific strength of both sides to address basic scientific questions. For example, my group at Stanford has designed or identified new molecular entities which show anti-cancer activities. The team in India is looking at the possible metabolic pathways that are common in various types of cancers with those in diabetes. The collective information could help us in designing new drugs.


What kinds of new perspectives have been gained from the collaboration of Indian and American researchers working to better understand non-communicable diseases?

The center was created only a year ago, and it is too early to derive major scientific outcomes. However, our joint efforts have started to help us better understand the underlying biological pathways that are common for cancer and metabolic syndrome. Hopefully, in future, this work will lead to development of novel therapies.


Why do you think it’s important for researchers from India and the United States to share scientific data?

Non-communicable diseases are prevalent in both countries and cause major economic burdens. There is scientific expertise and infrastructure available on both sides. It is of mutual interest that experts from both countries combine their strengths and address these challenges. This will benefit both nations and the global community at large.


Kimberly Gyatso is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, California.