Chemotherapy, one of the most effective treatments for Cancer, is considered an overkill and more painful than the disease itself.

Shruti, our next pathbreaker and DST Inspire Fellow, is one of the several scientists across the globe working on novel cures for cancer based on natural products.

Shruti talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about her career path that led her to Biotechnology and applied research on novel cures that target cancer cells better while being non-toxic.

Shruti, tell us about your background?

My Name is Ms. Shruti Gamya Dash. I belong to a small village; Jaraka located in the Jajpur district of Orissa. Our district is famous for the temple of Maa Viraja, so it is also called Maa Virajakshetra. Jajpur finds mention in ancient Indian mythology texts as well as in Puranic literature where it is referred to as Viraja and Baitarini Tirtha, one of the most important tirthas in India.

I studied in two schools, one of which was Vivekananda Sikshya Kendra (V.S.K), where I completed my elementary studies and Damodar Vidyapitha, Achyutupur, where I completed my secondary studies and passed 10th class with first division in Oriya medium. At school i used to participate in debates and had a keen interest in science and the logic behind everything that exists. I have always been searching for answers to the “Whys”. In 2006, I received awards and certificates from our former Governor of Orissa late Sri. Rameshwar Thakur for having participated in a state-level debate competition.

I grew up in a simple and open minded middle-class family that encouraged hard work. My parents are the backbone of my entire life. They stood by me and helped me in every step of my life. My family has always gone through a lot of ups and downs, given the fact that my parents had to overcome challenges with great courage and goodwill. My father used to tell me, whatever the problem might be, you’re going to overcome it. I completed my elementary studies at his school. He was the secretary cum owner of our school. My mother is a Govt., high school teacher. She gives me everything she has just to make my life easier. My parents used to teach me and my elder sister in our childhood on a daily basis.

My parents had a vision that all of their children have higher education. As a result, my elder sister did her MBA, post-graduate in Journalism and LLB, respectively. I have passed my 12th in science stream in English medium. Science students are generally familiar with courses like MBBS, BDS and B.Tech., but at that time I came across Biotechnology, which interested me. So I decided to pursue a career in this field.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

As I decided to shape my career in Biotechnology, I moved to Bhubaneswar to take admission to the Neelanchal Institute of Medical Science (NIMS), a college affiliated to Utkal University. I obtained my bachelor’s degree with first-class honors with distinction (College topper) in Biotechnology in 2014. After that, I was determined to pursue my higher studies in this field. In 2016, I completed my M.Sc in Biotechnology, (1st class first with distinction) from Sambalpur University, Burla, I was the University Topper (Gold Medalist). I was pleased because I saw my parents and family members happy for me on the day of my convocation when I got the certificates from our Chancellor, Former Governor of Odisha, S.C. Jamir. While pursuing my M.Sc., I was also availing P.G. merit scholarship, funded by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Government of India.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

I had two choices after M.Sc., working in a company or doing a PhD.  It was compulsory to pass a national level exam in order to be admitted into a PhD Program. As I was a gold medalist in my M.Sc., I applied for an INSPIRE fellowship from the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Government of India. At the same time, i applied to several research institutes for the position of Research Assistant. I got a call from the Central Rice Research Institute (CRRI), Bidhyadharpur, Cuttack, and I was selected for the interview and it was my first work. After a few days, I got my offer letter from DST to pursue PhD. I joined as a DST-INSPIRE fellow.

Tell us about your career path

During my Bachelor’s degree, I was working on the preparation of a field-based bio fertilizer for a project at the State Quality Control Laboratory in Bhubaneshwar. 

Biofertilizers are microbial inoculants or carrier-based preparations containing living or latent cells of effective nitrogen-fixing strains, phosphate solubilizing and cellulose decomposing microorganisms intended for seed or soil use and to improve soil fertility and plant growth by raising the amount and biological activity of beneficial soil microorganisms.

As I was interested in microbiology, I started my internship on soil microbiology, where we can produce industrially used enzymes with the help of microbes isolated from soil. Microbes are exploited because of their ability to produce important compounds that are widely used in food industries, silver recovery, detergents, wastewater treatment, etc. Some of the bacteria are the most important alkaline protease producers with the Bacillus gene being the most influential source because of their ability to produce large amounts of protease with substantial proteolytic activity and stability at high pH and temperature. They conduct highly selective and specific modification of proteins i.e. the zymogenic form of enzymes by limited proteolysis, blood clotting and lysis of fibrin clots, processing and transport of secretory proteins across the membranes. After the successful completion of my internship, I published this work as one research article. 

Proteases are hydrolytic enzymes that act as biocatalysts for the separation of proteins into smaller peptides and amino acids. Microorganisms have proven to be a competent and inexpensive source of alkaline protease enzymes that can provide a continuous and reliable supply of the desired product. Due to its wide spread use in the dairy and detergent industries protease remain the dominant form of enzyme. These enzymes can be classified into two main groups: endopeptidases, which cleave internal peptide bonds, and exopeptidases, which cleave C-or N-terminal peptide bonds. Alkaline protease plays an important role in the food industry, in the processing of value-added products. The alkaliphilic enzyme has significant uses in the detergent market also. The detergent industry uses a number of hydrolytic enzymes that function in the alkaline pH range. Apart from being used in laundry detergents, the alkaline protease enzyme is also used in household laundry detergents as well as in the production of institutional and industrial cleaning detergents. The alkaline protease enzyme is also having similar importance in the leather industry. Numerous steps are involved in the processing of leather, such as soaking, dehairing, baking and tanning. Traditionally, the production of leather required the use of dangerous and expensive chemicals such as sodium sulfide and lime. The use of these chemicals is not known to be eco friendly due to problems with the treatment of effluent. Instead, the use of enzymes has contributed to better leather quality and reduced emissions. Alkaline protease enzyme from microorganisms may be used to transform waste to usable biomass. Protein waste is solubilized by protease, which reduces the biological oxygen demand (BOD) in aquatic systems. Alkaline protease has the ability to kill waste from food processing industries and household operations, thereby playing a significant role in waste management. 

Thereafter, I decided to pursue my Ph.D. in cancer biology, basically in the field of drug designing, where I am doing my research work on the Development of Therapeutics from Natural Products for the treatment of breast cancer. 

In essence, cancer is the name given to a collection of related diseases. In all types of cancer, certain cells of the body begin to divide without stopping and spread to surrounding tissues. Cancer can begin almost anywhere in the human body, which is made up of trillions of cells. Normally, human cells grow and divide into new cells as the body needs them. When cells grow old or are damaged, they die, and new cells take their place. However, this orderly process breaks down when cancer develops. As cells become more and more abnormal, old or damaged cells survive when they die, and new cells form when they are not needed. These extra cells can divide without stopping and may form growths called tumors. Then we discuss, what is the difference between the cancer cell and normal cell, Cancer cells differ in many ways from normal cells that allow them to grow out of control and become invasive. An important difference is that cancer cells are less specialized than normal cells. That is, although normal cells develop into very distinct cell types with specific functions, cancer cells do not. This is one reason why, unlike normal cells, cancer cells continue to divide without stopping. Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer in women after skin cancer. Breast cancer is a condition in which malignant (cancer) cells grow in the breast tissues. While progress has been made in the diagnosis and treatment of in situ (pre-invasive) cancer, very little progress has been made in the treatment of advanced metastatic (invasive) carcinoma. Improved understanding of novel therapeutic agents will provide new treatment methods for the treatment of this disease. Chemotherapy remains the current method of treatment for metastatic cancers. Microtubule (MT) dynamics has proven to be an extremely useful target, in that along with DNA binding drugs microtubule interacting drugs are now included in the first-line therapeutic modalities in many types of cancers.

Microtubules are made up of a protein called tubulin. These microtubules are fibrous, hollow rods that act primarily to support and shape the cell. They also function as pathways through which organelles can move throughout the cytoplasm. Microtubules are typically found in all eukaryotic cells and are part of the cytoskeleton as well as cilia and flagella. Microtubules also play a very important role in the division of cells. Their primary cell division function is to connect to chromosomes, help chromosomes complete their first split, and then move new chromosomes to their new daughter cells. After the cell division has finished, the same microtubules return to their roles in the other parts of the cell.

What were the challenges? How did u address them?

Life is like a roller coaster of uncertainty. You can choose to embrace it and enjoy the ride, happily learning from your experiences along the way. Each stage of life is a challenging process. The main challenge was to enter a government university through a merit list for higher education. By working hard, I got to the second list of university rank holders in 2016 in the post-graduate entrance exam.

Another life challenge was to do a PhD by obtaining a national level fellowship. It was initially difficult for me to adjust to a new location and manage the necessary time for self-study outside classes during my M.Sc. But my hard work and sacrifice, being away from home paid off and my Master’s degree was fruitful. I’m fortunate to have a supportive and caring family and friends.

A sense of isolation is one of the most common problems for PhD students. PhD candidates sometimes work alone, with few or sometimes no other people working on their assignments, while colleagues may work in offices and teams, experiencing a much more social side of the 9-5. Predictably, this can lead to depression, a lack of motivation, and anxiety that no one knows or can relate to the problems you are experiencing. Maintaining a balance of time, work and life is also a daily challenge in life.

Where do you work now? 

I am currently working as DST-INSPIRE (Senior Research Fellow, Cancer Biology) Fellow at the Department of Biotechnology and Bioinformatics, Sambalpur University. I have completed part of my PhD research at the Center of Excellence, UM-DAE, Mumbai and some experimental work at the Institute of Life Sciences, Bhubaneswar. Apart from my research work, I like to teach computer-aided drug design to M.Sc. Biotechnology and M.Sc. Bioinformatics students. 

The DST INSPIRE Fellowship Program has been followed by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Government of India for the purposes of recruiting, adding, maintaining and cultivating talented young scientific human resources to improve the framework and foundation of R&D. INSPIRE Fellowship (22-27 years of age group) offers 1,000 fellowships each year to carry out a doctoral degree in both fundamental and applied sciences, including engineering and medicine. The duration of the fellowship is 5-years.

Now that I’m at the stage of learning, my day at the lab starts with planning of experiments to be carried out for my research work. Most of my time is spent reading research articles, conducting my experiments, writing full documentation of research events, guiding internship students, and talking to them about their experiments.

 How does your work benefit the society? 

As the incidence of cancer has been on the rise in India and as the current cancer chemotherapeutics are all known to induce undesired, dose-limiting toxicities in patients, it becomes imminent to develop novel drugs with reduced side effects and improved target specificity. Based on our extensive experience in synthesis and biological evaluation of several anticancer molecules, we believe that the current work would contribute substantially to the development of novel cancer therapeutics for a variety of tumors. We are optimistic that our research will lead to superior therapeutic outcomes with no- or minimal-toxicity using combination regimens of sub-optimal doses of novel non-toxic promising compounds and currently-available drugs, among patients. Natural products have a potential scope for modern cancer research.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

After my M.Sc. one day I got a chance to go to my school, where I completed my higher studies, as a career counselor, and interact with the students and deliver scientific talks and also share the information regarding the best colleges in India, mode of admission and fees structure, fellowships availability, etc. for higher studies.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Try not to get bogged down by external pressures such as competitive exams, coaching centers, schooling, and pressure to ace every exam. They are all important in their own way, but they are no more important than you and your happiness. It’s a journey of self-awareness and learning how to balance everything in life, but don’t be afraid to prioritize yourself and your peace of mind, every now and then.

Hard work, determination and honesty are the qualities that are required to be successful in life. “Nothing in this world is impossible” and anything can be done by self-confidence, positive outlook and hard work. It’s always nice to feel amazing when you know that you’ve done something that makes your parents so proud of you. Just remember, today’s going to be a great day.

Future Plans?

At this moment, my plan is to continue working in my field of research, as I am at the beginning of my career and have a long way to go. Apart from that, I love going to school, for career counseling for students, and interacting with students, so that they can get an average idea of how to develop their careers from an early stage, and how science and technology will help them achieve their goals through their innovation and dedication. For the future, I hope to continue working in the field where I learn something new.