We are currently living through a time in the history of human life like no other. The good world is busy trying to find out the ways to defeat the Wuhan, China, originating monster called COVID-19. India is playing a worthy role in this global exercise. Recently, we had published a story about an Indian research about Identifying Biomarkers To Predict Progression From Non-Severe To Severe Coronavirus. Here we talk with the person who leads the study — Dr Sanjeeva Srivastava, Professor, Group leader, Proteomics Facility, IIT –Bombay, Mumbai.
Dr Srivastava obtained his PhD from the University of Alberta and post-doc from the Harvard Medical School in the area of proteomics, stress physiology, and has specialized expertise in applications of data-enabled sciences in global health, developing country and resource-limited settings. Dr Srivastava is an active contributor to global proteomics science and innovation. He serves on the Executive Council of Human Proteome Organization (HUPO) and Proteomics Society, India (PSI). He is also the man behind one of the first-ever documentaries on proteomics – “Proteomics: Translating the Code of Life” and “Human Proteome Project (HPP)”.
For his leading role in some of the pioneering studies in the field of proteomics science and innovation in India, as indeed globally, League of India calls him an ‘Agent of Change‘.
You are leading a team that is exploring “metabolomics alteration for COVID-19 treatment”. Can you please explain the purpose, nature and scope of the study in simpler terms for our readers? Are there any tools and techniques that are unique to this study?
Dr Srivastava: The goal of this study is to better understand the changes inside the human body by virtue of the SARS-CoV-2 viral infection.
Our body mounts a response to any invading pathogen through a series of concerted efforts which in turn lead to changes in the chemical composition of the cells. The virus also requires a few such chemicals or small molecules, commonly referred to as “metabolites”, to survive and carry out its functions inside the cell. These responses may be different in different individuals depending on the immune system of the patient or the individual, and the type of the virus causing the infection.
Currently, we have no idea about these differences, and we aim to decipher those changes.
The study aims to profile metabolites from patient plasma and oral swabs using a technique called Mass spectrometry.
Once we collect all the data, subsequent analysis will provide an idea about the differences between the individuals suffering from mild to severe form of COVID-19.
Can this study be seen as a subset of the Human Proteome Project (HPP), which you are associated with? Can you please tell a little about HPP and your connection with it?
Dr Srivastava: The Human Proteome Project (HPP) aims at uncovering protein level information for all the protein-coding genes that make up a human body. The two verticals to this project are the Chromosome-centric human proteome project (C-HPP) and the Biology/Disease- driven HPP (B/D-HPP) and I am involved actively in both.
My lab works actively in Human Infectious Disease Project (HID) of B/D-HPP and investigates infectious diseases like Malaria and Dengue.
The current study cannot be included as a subset of the ongoing projects of HPP.
However, I am hopeful that given the severity of the problem due to the pandemic, we will find ways to collaborate with more proteomics/metabolomics scientists to include the information from multiple labs to expand the scope of this project.
A team in Ahmedabad recently achieved whole-genome sequencing of the novel coronavirus. How do such results aid your COVID-19 study? How would your team’s study add to such results? Combining all the studies, at what stage is research towards COVID-19 treatment currently in India?
Dr Srivastava: Genome sequencing is one level of information that is available to us now. The cells typically use this information stored in the genes to express themselves by forming mRNA ultimately giving rise to proteins.
Our aim is to generate information at a functional level, i.e., at the proteins and metabolite level and correlate the finding with the genome level information available.
As far as research in the therapeutic area is concerned, the whole world is in the nascent stages. However, constant encouragement from the government agencies and the availability of talent pool from diverse backgrounds is helping research progress at a rate like never before.
Is there an overlap between HPP and the Human Genome Project (HGP)? How do the two ‘projects’ help medical research — especially with regards combating pandemics like COVID-19 that seem to be afflicting the human race, in newer forms, every few decades?
Dr Srivastava: The Human Genome Project was a landmark event in research and provided us with vital details about the draft blueprint and genetic makeup of humans. However, information about how these genes affect the changes within the cells was not clear even after the interpretation of results from the HGP.
To this end, the human proteome (HPP) project was started as a flagship program of Human Proteome Project (HUPO) with the hope of finding answers to many questions that persisted.
The goal of these mega-efforts has always been to understand humans better, in order to be able to unravel the diseases like cancer, TB, Malaria and other infectious diseases.
While we have been making rapid strides in research, we must understand that nature also has always favoured the theory of survival of the fittest.
Like us, the microbes around undergo mutations and rapid changes in an effort to find newer ways to survive and thrive.
As a result, we are now seeing extraordinary and uncertain times due to pandemics like COVID-19.
A better understanding of the cells and the immune responses at multiple levels through projects like HPP, HGP will only better prepare us in fighting future pandemics.
What does it take to find a drug or vaccine for a disease or a pandemic like COVID-19? What would you like to say to the ‘everyday Indians’ who find it difficult to believe that there is no cure for something like COVID-19?
Dr Srivastava: Labs around the world are trying to fast track and speed-up research in a bid to find a vaccine or drug target without compromising on the quality besides ensuring human safety. This process will take some time but it is not impossible.
Scientists, healthcare workers and pharmaceutical companies and governments are all doing their best to ensure that the disease is combatted.
It is very important for individuals to not panic and believe in the basic mantra “break the virus chain” with simple cleaning steps and few precautions like washing hands with soaps, disinfectants like 70% ethanol, heat treatment at 56C for 30 min (some of these are easy ways to get rid of virus).