Please tell us about yourself
If it wasn’t for a mega-talented team of scientists, we wouldn’t have had the revolutionary vaccines for major global viruses that affect millions around the world. Thanks to them, we have path-breaking revelations in the field of medicine, with a way to tackle Dengue, Hepatitis C, and many viruses of the kind — all with just a single shot. Amongst the team is a proud Indian named Mumtaz Naiyer. Many of us have heard of him, and those who haven’t will now know why we speak of him in such great taste.
Dr Mumtaz Naiyer, a UK-based scientist from Kishanganj district, has come up with an ‘exciting’ discovery on path to develop new type of vaccine to treat global viruses.
Post-doctoral scientist and researcher Mumtaz Naiyer from Bihar spoke to India Today Education about his journey to being one of the best Indian scientists, and his vaccine invention that has resolved many medical treatment issues.
MM: Please tell us about your journey from Bihar’s one of the most backward districts of Kishanganj to the University of Southampton, United Kingdom?
Dr Naiyer: I was born in one of the remotest village of Kishanganj in Bihar. The place earlier was referred to as ‘Kala Pani’ because of sheer backwardness and no access to mainland India. You can consider my small village as ‘Kala Pani’ with no access to schools etc. So much so, electricity in my village arrived in 2016 after 70 years of independence.
I was born in the 80s in a humble family of farmers. My parents were illiterate but had great quest for education. I was youngest among my siblings with five elder brothers and two sisters. The eldest brother did not attend school, one studied up to class V and three attended college. One of them did masters and later PhD in English literature.
My father passed away when I was 8 years old. It was extremely difficult for my mother to support us. As madarsas are cheaper, my mother even asked me to attend the Islamic seminary and become an ‘Aalim’ (Islamic scholar). After my father’s demise, one of my eldest brothers Mr Zainul Abedin had to discontinue his studies to support the education of two younger brothers.
As there were no schools nearby, I studied at home and a single teacher used to teach all the children in the village. I was directly admitted to standard three in a government school, which was 4 km away from my village. There were no roads and the situation in rainy season was like a nightmare. There was a strict discipline in our family for education. No matter how bad the day, one cannot miss the school.
What did you study? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uniue career?
I studied up to high school in my village. After that, I moved to Patna. Since my medium of instruction was Hindi till high school, it was difficult to switch to English books at 10+2. Contrary to my elder brothers who studied arts, I choose science with biology, physics and chemistry. I had a dream to become a doctor as I had seen young children die in my village without medical facilities.
However, after repeated attempts I could not clear Premedical Test (PMT) conducted by Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and Bihar Combined Entrance Examination (BCEE). I moved to Delhi from Patna in the year 2000. I cracked BDS (Bachelor of Dental Surgery) entrance examination of Karnataka and B.Pharm (Bachelor of Pharmacy) entrance examination of Jamia Hamdard, New Delhi. Unfortunately, I could not afford any of these two. Then, I decided to do a simple B.Sc. course.
I appeared in the entrance test of B.Sc. (Biosciences) at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and I got selected for the course. That year, Jamia had lauched B.Sc. (Biotechnology) programme. The central university gave us an option to choose either of the programme. In addition, those who were top in the merit list have an option to choose biotechnology. I choose biotechnology.
Teachers were very supportive. Till that time, I had no predefine goals for an academic career like this. But later, I attended lectures of prominent academicians and scientists in my university. That changed my attitude completely towards higher education.
Surviving in a metro city like Delhi was not an easy job. The money I used to get from my family was not enough. I used to give tuitions in the posh colonies of Delhi to earn some bucks and support myself. Apart from that, I received Merit Scholarship by Central Wakf Board, Ministry of Minority Affairs, Government of India, for consecutive two years at bachelors level. I must say my brothers tried their best to support me throughout my academic journey.
After my bachelors, I joined Jamia Hamdard, New Delhi in its master’s programme in biotechnology, which was one of the best in the capital. Here too, my teachers were very supportive and encouraged me to do pursue research. I got training in institutions like Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), New Delhi. I got an exposure to quality research at my masters level. I was the recipient of Tasmia Merit Scholarship for best academic performance at masters level university exams in Jamia Hamdard.
My M.Sc. final year was full of turmoil. I lost my mother just a month before my final year’s examination and my family was going through financial crisis. Somehow, I managed to continue my studies.
I appeared in national level exams like National Eligibility Test (NET) jointly conducted by CSIR-UGC. I was awarded NET -Lectureship and Junior Research Fellowship by the UGC to pursue Ph.D. I also cleared GATE with 97 percentile.
After my masters, I joined National Centre for Cell Science (NCCS), Pune, an autonomous institution of the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, for my Ph.D. This is one of the top biotechnology research institutes in India. It is also a national cell repository. One of the best Immunologists in the country Dr Bhaskar Saha who is also a Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar Awardee mentored me.
During my Ph.D., I gained knowledge in molecular immunology and cell signaling. I worked on Human Visceral Leishmaniasis also called Kala-azar. Kala-azar is the most severe form of leishmaniasisand, without proper diagnosis and treatment, is associated with high fatality. Leishmaniasis is a disease caused by protozoan parasites of the genus Leishmania.
The parasite migrates to the internal organs such as the liver, spleen (hence “visceral“), and bone marrow, and, if left untreated, will almost always result in the death of the host. Signs and symptoms include fever, weight loss, fatigue, anemia, and substantial swelling of the liver and spleen.
My research work ‘Identification and Characterisation of Interleukin-10 Receptor Antagonist’ was published in the journal ‘Human Immunology’. The financial support was provided by the UGC for five years in which I was awarded Junior Research fellowship (JRF) for two years and senior research fellowship (SRF) for three years.
At the end of my Ph.D., I received offers for postdoctoral fellowships from University of Montreal, Canada; John Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, USA; National Institute of Health, Bethesda, USA; and Imperial College London, UK. Previously, Khakoo lab was in Imperial College London, which was later shifted to University of Southampton where I work now since March 2012.
Although I had options to join other labs in the USA and Canada, I decided to join Professor Khakoo’s lab for my postdoctoral research as my research goals were best matched with the objectives of Khakoo lab.
At University of Southampton, I started working on clinically important viruses such as Hepatitis C virus, Dengue, Zika, etc. and tried to understand how Natural Killer cells – which are fundamental part of body’s immune system – can clear the viruses.
Q. BEING BORN AND BROUGHT UP IN A REMOTE VILLAGE, DID YOU EVER THINK THAT YOU WOULD BECOME ONE OF THE MOST TALENTED SCIENTISTS OF THE COUNTRY?
MN: No, I did not. You set a vision from things you see around yourself. I had a small vision that one day I will go to school and work hard, such that master sahib would someday be happy with me and it would bring a smile on my mother’s face.
MN: Science has always inspired me since childhood. Later in high school and university, I realised the power of science in improving human race as a whole — from health to standard-of-living. If we look around, we can notice several examples where science has helped us significantly. Nevertheless, some of teachers at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, motivated me to pursue Science as a career.
Q. HOW DID YOU DARE TO DREAM A DREAM THAT WAS MUCH BEYOND THE LIMITATIONS OF “KALA PANI”?
MN: Dreaming is fine, but it comes with a cost. We all dream a lot until we come to know the cost it entails in achieving that particular dream. This is the point where some people give up — looking at the huge cost — citing one excuse or the other to themselves; while others endure. Apart from that, I would often see one of my brothers, who was less educated in the family, toiling hard in the fields. I took studies seriously because of him. I wanted to improve the living standard of my family and myself, and do whatever I can for people around me.
Q. WERE YOU ALWAYS A BRIGHT STUDENT IN ALL SUBJECTS?
MN: No, I was an average student who would learn gradually with each passing day. Nevertheless, Chemistry was my favourite subject until High School. At university, I developed a greater interest in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. I used to score very high in these subjects. Later, I developed an interest in Immunology. These interests helped me to understand the intricate regulatory mechanisms controlling the basic life process, and today I try to exploit these in developing advance biological tools that may combat the serious threats posed by different human pathogens–including viruses.
Q. BRIEF US ABOUT YOUR QUEST TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF YOUR UNIQUE VACCINE: THE DISCOVERY THAT YOU ARE MOST POPULARLY KNOWN FOR.
MN: This invention is a major step towards discovering a vaccine that can use the body’s own natural killer cells (NK cells) to shut major viruses down before they even get a chance to cause problems. NK cells are a fundamental part of the body’s immune system, and can recognise different viruses including global pathogens such as Zika, Dengue and Hepatitis C — all through a single receptor called ‘KIR2DS2’.
Initially, our team analysed the DNA of more than 300 patients going through Hepatitis C. The study showed that KIR2DS2 was associated with successfully clearing the virus. In this study, we have shown that this NK cell receptor KIR2DS2 is able to target a non-variable part of the virus called the NS3 helicase protein, which is essential in making the virus work properly.
The traditional vaccines work by stimulating the immune response to the coat of proteins on the virus, enabling the body to fight it off and recognise it in the future. However, the viruses are able to change their coat proteins, helping it to evade the antibodies – meaning, some viruses can be very hard to vaccinate. Unlike other proteins, the NS3 helicase protein does not change, which allows the immune system to grab hold of it and let the NK cells deal with the threat. The NS3 helicase protein could be the key to unlocking the defence of lethal viruses that affect so many people around the world.
It is very exciting to discover that other viruses similar to Hepatitis C, such as Zika, Dengue, yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis — and in fact all flaviviruses, contain a region within their NS3 helicase proteins that is recognised by exactly the same KIR2DS2 receptor. We believe that by targeting this NS3 helicase region, we can make a new type of vaccine based upon NK cells, which can be used to protect people from these infections. This strategy will enable us to make a single vaccine for multiple viral infections.
Our findings present a completely new strategy for virus therapeutics which could be easily translated into the field of cancer. The findings are very exciting, but are still at an early stage and will require further studies and clinical trials in order to move forward definitively.
The researchers now need to determine whether these KIR2DS2+ NK cells are protective during acute flaviviral infections, and are hoping to develop a vaccine that targets natural killer cells. They believe that a similar process could be used to target cancer.
MM: How does your work benefit the community?
Dr Naiyer: This is a well-presented study and a significant advancement in this field that identifies the important role of the receptor KIR2DS2. Since I come from India, which has thousands of cases of dengue each year, I can understand the suffering of patients with dengue. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to ease the suffering of these dengue-affected patients.
Natural Killer Cells play important role in fight against cancer and viral clearance. Our study focuses on how a single vaccine can be effective against multiple viruses. Our findings, which was recently published in prestigious journal “Science Immunology” also suggests that this strategy for virus therapeutics could be easily translated into the field of cancer.
What kind of encouragement did you find from your family and friends?
Dr Naiyer: My family was supportive. My brothers would often say, ‘Do not think about money, you just focus in your studies and leave rest to us’.
I had a very healthy competition with my friends and some of them genuinely motivated me.
MM: given the literacy rate of your area, what did inspire you to select this stream in higher studies?
Dr Naiyer: During my growing up years in the 90s, the sentence I often hear in my surrounding was “padh likh kar kuch nahi hota” (education gives you nothing). Most of the parents would send their school going to children to Delhi, Mumbai, Punjab and other metro cities of India to earn money and livelihood. That was such a discouraging period for education in my area called Seemanchal, which resulted in very high number of unskilled labour force.
Nevertheless, I was never tempted to leave my school or studies and determined to prove that education is the most powerful tool. Despite hardship, I keep going systematically. Even during my bachelors and masters in Delhi, people from my area would say “kab tak padhte rahoge miyan” (how long would you study)?
MM: Why did not you go for engineering and other short-term professional courses like others belonging to humble family background do to support their families?
Dr Naiyer: As I said before, I wanted to become a medical doctor, so engineering or any other short-term courses were never in my mind.
MM: What are your future plans?
Dr Naiyer: I want to contribute more to science and use my knowledge and expertise against the serious threats to humankind posed by dangerous viruses such as Zika, Dengue, Ebola, etc.
I would like to establish my own lab and become a principal investigator. If given the opportunity, I would like to return to India and want to contribute to the Indian science.
MM: Is there any big project in your mind?
Dr Naiyer: I am contemplating to write grants for my own funding to support my research work. I shall apply for grants in Medical Research Council, UK, and Wellcome Trust, UK.
MM: Where do you want to see yourself 10 years down the line?
Dr Naiyer: After 10 years, I want to see myself as a successful scientist who has contributed a bit for the welfare of humankind by doing high-level science. I want to become an expert in my field.
Do you have any plan for the educational upliftment of your area, especially for Muslim youth?
Dr Naiyer: This is interesting question. I would definitely plan and would happy to contribute for the educational upliftment of my area. I along with some other friends from Bihar are trying to develop a unique platform where we can support meritorious students from Seemanchal (Bihar) irrespective of their financial conditions.
I have a dream to establish school/colleges, hospitals and healthcare in every block of Seemanchal. I would also focus in girls/women education. I would share the road map at appropriate time.
MM. Do you want to give any message to the youth of the community?
Dr Naiyer: Our community has some deeper problems and the youth are looking for microwave solutions. Our community has limited resources, please use them effectively. You must work hard, and should not waste time and resources.
The message I would pass to the youths is that there is no short cut for success. You cannot bypass the stairs of education and reach on the top through a side-lift. If you try, it would be disastrous for your career. Do not fear failures as failures are there to make you strong.