Professor Rama Shanker Verma, Department of Biotechnology, Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, and his team have researched a novel treatment that uses a new class of molecules called immunotoxins that could eliminate the side effects that cancer patients have to endure during their treatment. He divulges more details about it, in an interaction with Lakshmipriya Nair
Can you elaborate on the characteristics of the new immunotoxins constructed by IIT Madras?
We constructed the fourth generation of immunotoxins – humanised immunotoxins, in which both the toxins and the targeting moiety being genetically fused, are derived from humans. Previously, immunotoxins utilised bacterial or fungal derived toxins which lead to immunological response in patients. This new generation of immunotoxins address the immunogenicity problems. We designed a variety of immunotoxins utilising TRAIL and DFF40 as killing partners which are cutting-edge tools in the area of immunotoxin research.
How will it revolutionise cancer treatment?
Since this therapeutic approach specifically targets the cancer cell, it has the potential to replace the non-specific chemotherapeutic drugs. Currently, a number of humanised immunotoxins are in different phases of clinical trials. They have the advantage of being specific and effective due to higher catalytic efficiency of toxin and thus, have lower threshold than conventional anti cancer drugs.
Given the fact that India is in need of affordable, yet effective solutions to improve healthcare, how will this new development aid this goal?
Targeted therapy using immunotoxins is highly specific and efficient in eliminating tumour cells as compared to conventional chemo and radiotherapy. This translates to less side effects and stress to patients besides being economically viable for the patient in the long run. The immunotoxin dosage is lower than standard anti-cancer treatments. Benefit of immunotoxins outweigh any financial and economic drawbacks.
Can the government use it to improve public health sector in India?
Yes, it can be done if more funding is allocated for development of such drugs of clinical importance. Scientists (our group) have the capability to develop a proof of concept leading up to the clinical trial. I believe that target therapy can be developed for the treatment of many diseases in future, as it will reduce the side effects and immune complication to the patients. This will also reduce the overall cost of treatment as it progresses.
What are the other research areas for IIT Madras in the sphere of healthcare?
In our laboratory, we are engaged in developing stem cell based patches for the treatment of ischemic heart. We are also engaged in constructing and developing the bio-prosthetic heart valve for paediatric patients. Our research is also developing molecular biomarkers for rare disorder such as Fanconi anaemia, a rare haematological disorder that has stem cell deficiency. This disease is prevailing in a very conservative society where consanguineous marriages are prevalent.