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Bioengineering research has the key to success in the battle against this pandemic

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As per the WHO report on ‘A coordinated Global Research Roadmap’, there is a broad consensus amongst scientific researchers on the need for research to focus on actions that can save lives now and facilitate action so that those affected are promptly diagnosed and receive optimal care; while integrating innovation fully within each research area. Moreover, there is an imperative for countries to support research priorities in a way that leads to the development of sustainable global research platforms pre-prepared for the next disease X epidemic. There are many such aspects covered by various countries related to clinical characterisation and management, environmental measures and more. Countries such as the UK are now exploring the use of research on nanobodies to combat COVID 19. Back here in India, we have a strong Bioengineering foothold, therefore, researchers such as Dr Renu Vyas, Head of the Institute, School of Bioengineering Sciences and Research, MIT ADT University, Pune feels that right from designing and developing biomedical devices, diagnostics, characterising the disease pathology, developing strategies to combat their infection through therapies and vaccination, ‘bioengineering’ will play a key role. In a brief interview, she explains her point of view to Raelene Kambli

How has the research scenario changed post the COVID 19 pandemic? Has there been a change?

Research is a systematic study that can be used to understand, explain, predict or control an observed phenomenon using a scientific method. Everything that we see today, including scientific, technological, and cultural aspects are outcomes of centuries of research.  We, at MIT School of Bioengineering Sciences & Research, strive to inculcate an aptitude in research in our students at a very early age by developing a spirit of enquiry in them. We strongly believe that interdisciplinary research is the need of the day,  accordingly, we groom our students in super specialised subjects like pharmaceutical engineering, synthetic biology, tissue engineering, big data analytics, biosensors and IoT, biomedical imaging, biomechanics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, robotics etc. and encourage them to do carry out projects. The undergraduate and postgraduate students get an opportunity to interact with our PhD students pursuing advanced research areas. Our students have received accolades at global and national platforms under the able guidance of faculties with immense research experience in premium national and international laboratories. We are one of the pioneering institutes who train such young minds to investigate primary literature and undertake interdisciplinary research. The vision of the institute is to groom bioengineers who will impact life science research by merging biology with engineering and make India a manufacturing hub thus fulfilling the dream of an Atma Nirbhar Bharat.

Answering the second part of your question, if one analysis the research scenario in the COVID era, the most important phenomenon has been the emphasis on inter-disciplinary approach, research collaborations across various nations and institutes have ramped up with sharing of resources and data, the publication of COVID related research papers has been expedited like never before, streamlining and expediting of clinical trials towards vaccine development etc. Scientists from various fields like mathematics to cell biologists, clinicians and molecular biologists have come forward and are providing complementary expertise to deal with the COVID 19 pandemic. Additionally, there has been a lot of thinking and analysis on human safety equipment and procedures across all industries be it manufacturing, banking, IT or any services. This is giving rise to several innovative ideas and products.

Which area of research on SARS-CoV-2 particularly interests you? Is there some research work that you feel has the potential to resolve the situation in which we lie today?

I think every research and the data it generates is crucial, no information can be less relevant or more relevant. Likewise, every research related to SARS CoV 2 plays some role in enhancing our understanding of the virus, thus inching a step closer toward its abatement. To me, the most critical research element is related to clarity and a global consensus on the exact molecular mechanism of the disease and routes of transmission by merging the available data from all government and non-government agencies. Several epidemiological models helped us to predict how the virus will spread and what its impact will be, the study on its genome, proteome has helped us in deciphering the viral pathology, several cell biology, immunology and molecular biology studies have helped us in gaining preliminary understanding its interaction with the host cell. All these studies in combination will play a major role in deciphering the mechanism of the disease and thereby combating its spread.

It is also important to mention the ongoing research in drug repurposing and exploring AYUSH- based drugs that have a huge potential in expediting an effective anti-viral drug discovery as clinical and efficacy studies are already in place. Another area of research is in bio-medical field wherein, researchers across industries, academia and start-ups have developed low-cost, easy-to-use ventilators, PPE kits and other protective gear, apps for plasma matching donors, innovative methods for large scale sanitisation, thermal scanning etc. All these are significant in improving quality treatments and therapies for COVID 19 patients, in discovering new treatment modalities and in preventing further infections. In this context, every small endeavour has a major impact and is equally exciting.

It is difficult to point out a particular research work but I would like to stress the importance of bioengineering research post-COVID 19, be it in terms of molecule engineering, biology data engineering or biomedical instrument engineering. A multi-pronged approach in research will be essential to deal with an unprecedented pandemic situation.

Can you describe the recent research on nanobodies that can prevent infection from the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2?

This study was performed by a group of scientists from different institutes across the UK. Let me just explain it in brief here. Viruses have two types of proteins – the structural proteins and the non-structural proteins. The non-structural proteins are involved in functions related to the life cycle of the virus while the aid of the structural protein in infecting the host by binding to host cells. Spike protein is an important structural protein in SARS CoV 2. In SARS CoV-2 it has been earlier reported that a specific region called receptor binding domain of the spike protein binds to angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor. Three receptor binding domains have been characterised in SARS CoV 2. This binding facilitates the entry of the virus into the human cells hence blocking this binding could be one of the strategies to prevent viral infection. In this study published recently, the researchers have identified and characterised nanobodies which bind to all three receptor binding domains of the spike protein and block its binding to the ACE2 receptor. Further characterisation and validation studies using these nanobodies are required to establish their therapeutic potential. Nevertheless, this could be one of the effective strategies in passively immunising severely infected patients in addition to convalescent plasma therapy.

How do you think this pandemic will foster new avenues for research in infectious diseases?

Tropical countries such as India are home to a lot of infectious diseases. Several people succumb to these infectious diseases annually. However, all these years, these diseases did not get the attention they deserve since they are not of much commercial interest to the western world and global big pharma. There were just a handful of institutes that worked on these diseases. But now post COVID the entire perspective has changed as policymakers realise the infectious disease burden on the economic engine of the world. Several companies which used to work on diseases like cancer and metabolic disorders earlier will be compelled to rework their priorities on infectious diseases.

Further, it is not just research in infectious diseases but also searching means to manage the disease by strengthening the public health care system, community surveillance and saving lives.

As I mentioned earlier, this pandemic reiterates the importance of interdisciplinary research. The application of bioengineering tools and techniques such as telemedicine, online patient monitoring, IoT enabled devices, point of care diagnostics, cost-effective rapid testing kits available at home etc., will be more relevant in the days to come. Right from designing and developing biomedical devices, diagnostics, characterising the disease pathology, developing strategies to combat their infection through therapies and vaccination, ‘bioengineering’ will play a key role.

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