Welcome to our Meet the SDG3 researcher blog collection. We are interviewing a series of academics and practitioners working in diverse fields to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages. You can find other posts in this collection here, and discover what else Springer Nature is doing to advance progress towards achieving this goal on our dedicated SDG3 hub.
Please tell us a bit about yourself.
Since 2019 I am a Professor in the Faculty of Life Sciences & Biotechnology (FLSB) at South Asian University (SAU), New Delhi. I joined SAU in June 2011 as an Assistant Professor and was promoted to Associate Professor in 2012.
I did my undergraduate studies in Biochemistry from Sri Venkateswara College, Delhi University, followed with a post-graduate Master’s degree in Biotechnology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. I completed my doctoral studies at the National Institute of Immunology (NII), New Delhi. These are both premiere academic institutions in India and accept the top 1-2% of applicants. After receiving my doctoral degree in 2001, I worked as a post-doctoral fellow at one of the foremost research groups in HIV virology at the Laboratory of Molecular Microbiology (LMM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), USA under the mentorships of Dr Eric Freed and Dr Klaus Strebel. Thereafter, in 2009, I returned to India and worked at the Institute of Liver & Biliary Sciences as a Principal Investigator & Assistant Professor until 2011.
Here, for the past 13 years, I have been leading an independent research program on studying the molecular and cell biology of the AIDS virus, HIV-1, with a special emphasis on understanding the molecular mechanisms of host antiviral factors and translating these findings in the development of novel anti-HIV retroviral drugs. Our research has made significant contributions towards our understanding of the basic as well as translational biology of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).
How did you get into this research field?
I have always been fascinated about the prospect of working in the field of infectious disease biology. HIV is the causative agent of AIDS, a deadly disease without a complete cure, although great progress has been made towards treatments enabling those infected to manage the virus. I started working on this virus during my PhD days at the NII and continued working during my post-doctoral days at the NIH, USA. I had terrific mentors – Dr Akhil Banerjea (PhD), Dr Eric Freed (Postdoc) and Dr Klaus Strebel (Postdoc), who inspired and motivated me to continue working in the field of HIV biology.
I have been successful in obtaining both national and international funding that has yielded several peer-reviewed publications. I was the recipient of the Department of Biotechnology Rapid Grant for Young Investigators in 2010 and also received the prestigious NIH Intramural to India grant award in 2013. While at the NIH, I was the recipient of the Performance Award for Special Achievement in 2008 and the Fellows Award for Research Excellence (FARE) in 2006.
How does your work relate to SDG3?
My work relates to SDG target 3.3, that aims to end the epidemic of AIDS by 2030.
My research is focused on studying host-pathogen interactions in HIV infections and translating the basic findings in the development of novel anti-HIV retroviral drugs and latency reversal agents. One of the main obstacles to curing HIV infection is that the virus can remain hidden and inactive (latent) inside certain cells of the immune system (such as CD4 cells) for months or even years. While HIV is in this latent state, the immune system cannot recognize the virus, and antiretroviral therapy (ART) has no effect on it. Latency-reversing agents reactivate latent HIV within CD4 cells, allowing ART and the body’s immune system to attack the virus.
In a major advancement, research from my lab has significantly contributed to the development of maturation inhibitors as a novel class of anti-HIV retroviral drugs. Our research efforts have discovered and characterized the mechanism of action of a novel betulinic acid derivative anti-retroviral drug, Bevirimat (BVM). We have demonstrated that BVM analogs display potent anti-retroviral activity against major HIV-1 subtypes especially the most infectious HIV-1 subtype C. We have further identified and characterized resistant mutations which provide insights into the mechanism of resistance to these compounds. In a landmark study, published in Retrovirology, we have identified key polymorphisms in HIV subtype C, which regulate the sensitivity of the virus to the drugs. Our studies will be extremely beneficial in development of novel and broadly active therapies.
In another study we focused on a different maturation inhibitor targeting HIV subtype B and C, the two most prevalent HIV-1 subtypes, and further clinical development of drugs appears promising.
For a complete cure of AIDS, it is important to target and reactivate latent HIV. In an important discovery, our group has identified and characterized a novel class of agents that reverse the virus latency.
HIV exploits specific proteins (also known as HIV-dependency factors) during its replication inside the cell. Potassium channels play a crucial role in the life cycle of several viruses. In another work we published, we demonstrated important results showing that potassium channels could serve as a safe therapeutic target for treatment of HIV/AIDS. Our group has established collaborations with industrial partners, such as DFH Pharma, Pfizer, and Hetero Drugs.
What’s the most pressing research question in your field, and your hopes for progress in the future?
The most pressing question in HIV research is to find a complete cure for the disease. There are currently more than 25 FDA approved antiretrovirals available for HIV/AIDS treatment. Long term usage of antiretroviral drugs can decrease how the drug is tolerated and lead to the emergence of drug resistant viruses. This means that we would need to constantly develop new anti-HIV drugs, which is not sustainable.
Our lab has identified novel second-generation maturation inhibitors, which display potent and broad anti-retroviral activity across major HIV-1 virus subtypes including subtype C, the most infectious HIV-1 subtype. These inhibitors developed by our team have the potential to be in clinical development in the near future and will add to the repertoire of drugs currently used for anti-HIV/AIDS highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART).
Please describe hurdles you’ve come across during your career.
A major challenge in conducting research is to ensure the smooth inflow of funds to help sustain the work in the lab. In this regard we have been successful in obtaining funding from national and international agencies so far, but our struggle to keep getting funding continues. A major challenge to female researchers is to maintain the work-life balance which I could achieve with the help of my family.
Please tell us about a resource or person that has particularly inspired you?
My mentors – Dr Akhil Banerjea, Dr Eric Freed and Dr Klaus Strebel continue to be a great source of inspiration for me. I did my PhD with Dr Banerjea and I remember him being a very patient and understanding person even if the experiments failed. He would help in troubleshooting and guiding us to improve. I learned a lot from Drs Freed and Strebel. It was so inspiring to see them work on the bench themselves. Both of them helped me a lot towards becoming an independent scientist.
You can find other posts in this collection here.
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