In pursuit of cure for a killer blight

"Success or failure, I am confident of finding a cure for diabetes."  

An estimated 10-12 per cent of Indians suffer from diabetes. But this metabolic disorder, marked by high glucose level in the blood and fall in insulin secretion, can be controlled but not cured. It can affect the heart, kidney, peripheral nerves and eyes. In extreme cases, poor wound healing can lead to amputation of limbs.

S. Gunasekaran, professor of Physiology, Christian Medical College, Vellore, who received a grant from the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Ministry of Science and Technology, for his diabetes research project, talks to P.V.V. Murthi about his goal in life.

BORN IN a fisherman's family at Thangachimadam, near Rameswaram, Dr. Gunasekaran had his early schooling in the same village. After completing his SSLC in Madurai, he went to St. Joseph's College, Tiruchi, before joining the CMC as a Research Fellow. He completed M.Sc. (Physiology) from the same college in 1973.

After a Ph.D. in 1981, he went to the U.S. in 1983 as visiting faculty to the Texas Tech. University. Since his return to India, Dr. Gunasekaran has been conducting trials in transplanting insulin-secreting Islets of Langerhans from the pancreas of rats into other diabetes-induced rats and from monkeys to rats, with grants from the Indian Council for Medical Research and the Department of Science and Technology.

He succeeded in both the trials, with the experimental rats being cured of diabetes. But the research in transplantation of cells involving monkeys in 2000 ran into opposition from the Committee for the Purpose of Control and Supervision of Experiments in Animals, Chennai. The committee officials released all the caged monkeys kept for research.

Attempts to obtain Government approval to use primates for research proved unsuccessful. But Dr. Gunasekaran continued undaunted. His efforts bore fruit, when in April 2002 the Institutional Review Board of the CMC Hospital approved a proposal to isolate human pancreatic cells for transplantation into animals, which is important for transplantation into diabetic patients.

The Chennai-based Multi Organ Harvesting Aid Network Foundation, an association formed by four hospitals for sharing of organs for transplantation from cadavers of the brain dead, agreed last year to provide Dr. Gunasekaran, with human pancreas for research.

More importantly, he received a letter from Bindu Dey, director, DBT, last month, which announced that his revised proposal for isolation of human pancreatic Islets had been recommended for financial grant.

Dr. Gunasekaran said he expects Rs. 30 lakh-grant for the project, which would pave the way for a crucial experiment of transplanting pancreatic Islets from the cadavers of the brain dead into diabetic patients. "Success or failure, I am confident of finding a cure for diabetes," said the 55-year-old researcher.

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