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Maiden brain centre with Harry Potter link

New Delhi, Feb. 15: Indian and British scientists have established a research centre to probe disease mechanisms and seek out treatment strategies for intractable brain disorders through joint studies never attempted before in India.

The Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine (InStem), Bangalore, will house the Centre for Brain Development and Repair to be launched on Saturday under a collaborative initiative with the University of Edinburgh.

The centre will start with research on autism spectrum disorders and other conditions that lead to intellectual disabilities, but will expand its activities to cover degenerative brain disorders such as dementia, scientists said.

“We’re trying to understand the molecular events in brain cells, and their impacts on brain circuitry, brain chemistry and behaviour,” said Sumantra Chattarji, a neurobiologist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, and director of the new centre.

The launch of the centre follows two years of collaborative research between InStem, the NCBS and Edinburgh. “This will pool the capabilities of the high-achieving scientists from these (three) epicentres of brain medicine research to tackle some of the most intractable problems in (brain) medicine,” Stephen Hillier, a biologist and the vice-president international at the University of Edinburgh told The Telegraph.

In independent studies earlier, the Bangalore and Edinburgh groups have shown that it may be possible to reverse certain neurodevelopmental disorders for which there are no standard, reliable treatments yet.

Chattarji’s work on laboratory mice three years ago had raised hopes that symptoms of Fragile X Syndrome, the most common cause of inherited mental retardation, may be reversed through a pharmacological compound.

In Edinburgh, Adrian Bird has — also through studies on mice — suggested that the symptoms of a condition called Rett Syndrome, the most physically disabling of the autism spectrum disorders, may be reversed.

Most of the research in such areas has been focused on trying to pinpoint genes that might be involved in such disorders. At the new centre, scientists will try to interpret how gene variations influence signals between brain cells and how this in turn affects behaviour.

“A major task ahead is to develop rat models to study brain disorders,” Chattarji told this newspaper. “Rats can be assigned far more complex tasks than mice and are more suitable animal models to capture brain disorders in humans.”

Scientists expect that a better understanding of the disease mechanisms could lead them to new treatment strategies to correct or reverse the effects of the disease. Rat models will also help scientists evaluate candidate drugs.

The Bangalore centre will collaborate with medical institutions in India and Edinburgh, including the Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic, Edinburgh, built through a 10-million donation by Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling, and named after her mother.

“What excites me most is the possibility of working with both PhD students and clinician neurologists (doctors) in India,” said Siddharthan Chandran, professor of neurology at the University of Edinburgh, one of the collaborators.

The centre will try to coax doctors from the Christian Medical College, Vellore, the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bangalore and other medical universities to join its research projects.

“India needs a cadre of clinician-scientists — highly-qualified doctors who work with patients and in the laboratory,” said Chattarji. “They have a deeper appreciation of the disorders and could also help in evaluating candidate drugs.”

Scientists at the centre are likely to seek research funding from both Indian and UK government agencies such as India’s department of biotechnology and department of science and technology or the UK’s Medical Research Council.