Dr. Mayurika Lahiri: A flagbearer of breast-cancer research

WIISER : Women in Science at IISER

Shruti Mandal and Arunita Banerjee

  Dr. Mayurika Lahiri is an associate professor of biology at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune. In this electronic interview, she talks about her life-saving research targeted towards designing therapies for breast cancer and the academic atmosphere in the country.

  1.Please give us a simplistic overview of your research area and the work done in your lab.

  We are exposed to various damaging agents such as chemicals through a wide variety of sources. Cells have developed defence mechanisms to protect themselves against such damaging agents. These defence mechanisms include a wide range of proteins. We are studying these various proteins by deregulating them (removing certain restrictions and regulations) in a three-dimensional model mimicking the human breast cells. We have observed that the abnormal cells have most of the characteristics of cancerous cells. We are also dissecting out the mechanism of how this transformation process occurs so that therapeutics can be developed in future.

  2. What are some artless ways of detecting cancer at an early stage? In continuation, please tell us about your recent study related to breast cancer.

  Screening is one way of detecting cancer early. For example, regular breast screening can help to detect lumps in the breast; regular PAP smear (in medical terms - the Papanicolaou test) screening can help to detect abnormalities that can lead to ovarian cancer; testing PSA (which stands for Prostate-specific antigen, a protein that is produced by the cells of the prostate gland) levels can help screen and detect prostate cancer in men, to name a few. The next stage is genetic sequencing, so that personalised therapies can be provided to patients.

My group has been investigating the process by which damaged genetic material or phospholipid-based secretions in the immediate environment of cells can exert marked changes in their structure and function. The changes are prominent in the cells forming the single layer of epithelial cells of the breast acini (breast lobules). To monitor these changes, we use a three-dimensional model that mimics the spheroidal structure of the breast acini. Recent studies have shown that the changes are propagated through alterations in the basic spheroidal structure of proteins for maintaining the shape of cells.

In order to understand whether any of these proteins can be used as biomarkers (biological identifiers) for the Indian population, we collaborate with Prashanti Cancer Care Mission (PCCM), Pune to use patient blocks to study the expression levels of these proteins in the Indian population.

  3. What inspired you to become a researcher? From an insider's perspective, what are the pros and cons of a life in research?

  The quest to find how biological systems work has inspired me to become a researcher. Biology has always fascinated me. It is a wonder how correct and synchronised functioning of systems within us helps us to live, breathe and reproduce. Also, being born into a family where every individual is a medical practitioner has always made me think about what happens to the human body that leads to various diseases. The only way to find answers is to become a researcher.

It is a very satisfying profession where I am my own “boss”! There is a lot of flexibility in choosing one’s research field, niche and topic. One can interact with many individuals of all age groups and it is exciting to discuss one’s work with people. One can be a role model for future researchers and inspire young minds to be inquisitive. One can get overtly involved, but it depends upon individuals if they consider it to be a pro or a con. Researchers are mostly working 24/7. There is no end to reading literature, writing for grants, evaluating manuscripts to name a few.

  4.What would be your words of advice to a student interested in a career in scientific research?

  A career in research is a never-ending long scientific journey and to be successful one requires to be passionate about science. Patience and persistence, strengthens one to solve the many unanswered questions. There will be numerous failures along the way but one should not give up and continue to persevere.

  5. How is the life of a research scholar/scientist different in India, as compared to abroad? Is India lacking when it comes to professional labs and understanding the importance of science and lives in science?

  I do not think there is any difference between the life of a research scholar/scientist in India compared to abroad. However, the one aspect that I do find lacking is “professionalism” amongst research scholars in India – the interaction between themselves and with their advisors. India has diverse research laboratories where some are doing fantastic science while others are not. This can be said for other countries too where some research institutes perform better due to better funding. Overall, the Government of India should allocate more funds for conducting both basic, applied and translational research. Through research we can strive to eradicate deadly diseases and help humankind.

This electronic interview was coordinated and conducted by Shruti Mandal and Arunita Banerjee for Cogito137.

Shruti Mandal is a 2nd year BS-MS student at IISER Kolkata, pondering over the meaning of her existence. She loves exploring and learning about life and hence science!

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