When we fall sick, we usually have a set of medicines we fall back on. However, it is not uncommon to find that a drug that works quite well for one person doesn’t work so well for another. In some cases, the second person may even react negatively to the drug. This is because predominant modes of drug development rely on testing on animals and a very small group of human beings who very likely belonged to different ethnicities, genders, age groups, and so on. Could there be a way to design drugs whose efficacy on humans we can be more sure of? This reality is what made the prospect of ‘personalised medicine’ — a medicine specifically designed keeping in mind a patient’s biology — so appealing. Pharmaceutical biotechnologists Dr. Prajakta Dandekar Jain and her husband Dr Ratnesh Jain are part of a select group of scientists around the world working on a cutting edge technology that brings us closer to this.
This is a branch of applied science that explores the use of living systems and their derivatives for pharmaceutical needs. These needs may refer to new therapeutic options, better ways to deliver existing drugs, better ways to test drugs, better and safer vaccines and so on. Drugs that are engineered from biological systems are called biopharmaceuticals - these could be proteins, DNA, RNA or even antibodies. One of the earliest biopharmaceuticals that was approved for use is recombinant human insulin which made it possible to produce and harvest human insulin from bacteria in large quantities. A more recent advance in this area is monoclonal antibodies.
An “organ-on-chip” is a microchip lined by human cells that is built to mimic the bioarchitecture, environment and working of a specific human organ, for example, heart, skin or lungs. They act as living 3D models of that particular organ. This technology holds the promise of being a game-changer in drug development because it enables testing drugs on human systems without the ethical complications that come with testing on human subjects. Prajakta is trying to develop material that can reduce our dependence on imported chips. She is using biopolymers like chitosan which is not only cheaper but also more environmentally sustainable. Besides organ-on-chip technology, she works with monoclonal antibodies and investigates the use of nanoparticles to improve drug delivery.
Today, Prajakta and Ratnesh work at the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT) in Mumbai. After her Ph.D, Prajakta and husband Ratnesh secured prestigious fellowships (from European Respiratory Society-Marie Curie Co-fund and Alexander von Humboldt Foundation respectively) that enabled them to take up post-doctoral positions in Germany for the next two years. To know more about women scientists of India and their research, visit www.thelifeofscience.com