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Former ISWK student shines in medical research

21 Mar 2021 By HUBERT VAZ

In 2004, she was a Grade X topper from Indian School Wadi Kabir. Today, she has blossomed into a postdoctoral researcher at Qatar Biomedical Research Institute (QBRI). Adviti Naik Jana, currently devotes all her energy towards identifying and validating novel targets to improve treatment strategies for breast cancer subtypes with poor prognosis, the incidence of which is common in Oman as well as other countries in the Middle East.  “Countries such as Oman, where consanguineous marriages still prevail, have a higher probability of propagating genetic risk factors for breast cancer,” says Adviti in an exclusive interview. Excerpts:

Could you draw attention to some of your findings on breast cancer which could be particularly helpful for Oman?

Aggressive forms of breast cancer are more prevalent in Oman and many middle eastern countries as compared to our western counterparts. The research that I have been involved in has focussed on understanding why this is the case and if we can identify novel ‘biomarkers’ or target proteins in our local breast cancer cohorts that may enable improved diagnosis or treatment options.

Do cultural and geographical factors play some role in the incidence of breast cancer in different countries. If so, can any corrective measures help curb the incidence in Oman, or the region?

Definitely. Both genetic and lifestyle factors play a major role in driving the incidence of breast cancer. Countries such as Oman, where consanguineous marriages still prevail, have a higher probability of propagating genetic risk factors. Providing adequate genetic counseling and raising awareness is crucial to prevent this.

Moreover, the cultural taboo of discussing breast cancer in our society leads to women being diagnosed at late stages of breast cancer. Breast cancer patients have a greater than 90% survival rate when diagnosed and treated at an early disease stage, while the rates are lower at late stage diagnosis. Again, raising awareness amongst families, both men and women, is crucial to early detection and treatment of breast cancer. In addition, promoting holistic wellness with adequate exercise and balanced nutrition is key to lowering the lifestyle risks of cancers.

When did you realise this was your cup of tea and did your education at ISWK in any way lay the foundation for your ambitious journey?

I wanted to be a doctor until I got to grade 10. Once, we were introduced to the concepts of genetics at high school in ISWK. That got me hooked and I never looked back. I was fortunate to be exposed to good educators and mentors throughout my education and was wholly supported by my family who strongly believed in my dreams. This makes such a big impact on career decisions and satisfaction in the long run.

What are you currently working on? Could you disclose anything promising?

I’m currently working on dissecting the role of certain cancer testis antigens (CTAs) in breast cancer tumorigenesis. These proteins are great candidate targets for anti-cancer therapy as they are expressed uniquely in tumour cells and in adult germline cells. I’m particularly interested in understanding the role of certain candidate CTAs in regulating genomic stability and mitotic fidelity, in addition to their influence on the tumour microenvironment and immune surveillance. The ultimate aim is to identify and validate novel targets to improve treatment strategies for breast cancer subtypes with poor prognosis.

What is it about your field of research that motivates you the most?

Cancer is a multifactorial complex disease. Considering the high prevalence of breast cancer in women worldwide, it is imperative that we are able to understand in-depth the various facets of this disease and strategise personalised targeted therapeutics. Although we’ve made leaps and strides in developing ground-breaking anti-cancer treatments, there is still so much scope for improvement, particularly for certain types of breast cancer that have high recurrence rates and develop resistance to standard-of-care therapies. Being able to implement my skills and knowledge to contribute towards improving the lives of women fighting breast cancer is what drives my excitement every day to continue doing what I do.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your research?

Our lab work was heavily impacted with a 6-month restriction to lab access. But we used the remote working time to analyse data and draft manuscripts and reviews. In addition, during the pandemic I was also able to utilise my skills to volunteer towards COVID-19 related research happening at the institute.

What’s the most important lesson you have learned in your career so far?

Science and research is such a roller-coaster ride, with a lot of lows and highs. I think most academicians are so focussed on following a specific career path and ticking off milestones that we lose sight of the bigger picture and forget to enjoy the ride. Personally, I have learnt to believe that everything happens for a reason so don’t stress too much when you’ve hit the lows. Things have a way of working out and most often recognising serendipity in science is what turns projects/careers from mediocre to ground-breaking. Focussing on the bigger picture and remembering why you chose this career path is what helps me stay positive and love what I do.

Besides research, what are your other interests for unwinding?

I enjoy being outdoors – camping, hiking, trekking, or spending the day at the beach. I love an active lifestyle, especially yoga, which keeps me grounded, calm and mentally energetic.

What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?

Working in cancer biology I may be biased, but I believe that immunotherapy has been a game-changer for treating many types of cancers that respond poorly to conventional chemotherapy and cancer treatments.

What advice do you have for budding scientists/researchers from Oman?

Don’t be afraid to try new things. Take risks and learn new skills all the time. If you can, definitely try to do your PhD or postdoc stints abroad at international labs – it is a very enriching experience, not just for learning science, but also gaining knowledge on how labs around the world function. Besides, the cultural experience is immense to help you grow into an empathetic scientist.

Journey of excellence

Adviti gained a Masters in Genetics and Molecular Cell Biology from the University of Sheffield, UK, and was awarded a joint PhD in Systems Biology from the Eberhard Karls University of Tubingen, Germany, and the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, funded by the prestigious Marie Curie Initial Training Network European Union grant. 

She had undertaken a postdoctoral position at the Sultan Qaboos University (SQU), Oman, where she was involved in a clinical breast cancer study assessing the biomarker potential of the neuropilin (NRP-1) pathway for the diagnosis of breast cancer and prediction of chemo-resistance. 

In 2018, she joined the Cancer Research Center at the Qatar Biomedical Research Institute (QBRI) as a postdoctoral researcher and was awarded the William Ferdinand Memorial Award, besides several scholarships for educational excellence. She had also gained experience in the pharma-industry through an industrial placement with AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals, UK, and is currently a co-editor for her institute’s science outreach newsletters and co-organises/moderates professional development seminars for early-career researchers.

 

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