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Mapping mysteries

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By Why is insulin only produced by the pancreas? Studying proteins could help us find answers to riddles such as this, scientist Akhilesh Pandey - hailed for cataloguing proteins found in the human body - tells T.V. Jayan
  • Published 2.06.14
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Akhilesh Pandey

One of the perks of working with scientist Akhilesh Pandey is that you get to fly. And, no, it’s not just about getting a flying start to your research career, which, of course, is guaranteed. This Johns Hopkins University professor, when he is not unfolding protein mysteries in his Baltimore lab, loves flying his co-workers in single-engine, four-seater Cessna airplanes.

“Pretty much everyone in my lab has flown with me. I even give them control of the plane,” says Pandey, who apart from teaching genetic medicine, is a trained flight instructor and pilot.

Soft-spoken Pandey’s claim to fame, however, lies elsewhere. Last week, he hit the headlines for spearheading a pioneering effort that helps catalogue most of the proteins found in the human body. For the study, his team used 30 tissues of different organs such as the heart, brain and liver of healthy individuals and extracted and studied their proteins.

Aiding him and his colleagues at Baltimore in this colossal task were 40-odd young researchers from a hitherto unknown research entity called the Institute of Bioinformatics (IOB), located in a technology hub of Bangalore.

“But for them, you and I would not have been talking today,” Pandey says, acknowledging the contribution made by these scientists, many of whom are still pursuing their PhDs.

It was Pandey who set IOB up about 12 years ago as a non-profit outfit to take advantage of the emerging field of bioinformatics to help scientists collate and analyse complex biological data with the help of computers with superior processing power. “We often failed to make both ends meet and I have used my credit card money at times to run the establishment,” Pandey reminisces.

Equally remarkable is the fact that the team worked on the project without any major funding, either from India or the United States.

Some funds came from the family. His father, Wing Commander (retd) Ram Krishna Pandey, and mother, Chandra Bai Pandey, who retired as a principal, provided a substantial amount of their own funds to keep the institution running, says Pandey, who is originally from Kanpur. “We have often gone out on a limb to raise funds for the research we do.”

But paucity of funds has never deterred him from following his heart. As he was graduating from the Armed Forces Medical College (AFMC) in Pune in the late eighties, Pandey realised that he did not want to practise medicine, but was keen on pursuing basic research.

Pandey, however, faced a problem. He had to serve the army for 20 years or pay a hefty amount to break the bond. “We didn’t have money to pay for the bond and my father (then an Indian Air Force officer) had to sell his newly purchased Maruti car to do so,” he recounts.

Pandey went to the University of Michigan to pursue a doctorate in pathology, and subsequently a postdoctoral degree in molecular biology. “It was then that I heard that a scientist in Denmark, Matthias Mann, was using mass spectroscopy (a method of sifting the components of a sample by their mass) for studying proteins. I went to Denmark to learn the technique from him,” he says.

The three-year stint at Odense in southern Denmark not only armed him with the tools that would help him map proteins but also gave him a life partner. He married Annette, now an art teacher in Baltimore and the mother of his two daughters, 7 and 5.

According to Pandey, what turned the corner for IOB was a project it won from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (Nimhans) in Bangalore to study the proteins in the human brain. This funding allowed them to procure arguably the best mass spectrometer in the country. The machine has been instrumental in helping them identify and annotate proteins encoded by 17,294 genes, which is about 84 per cent of the genes in the human genome predicted to produce proteins. The work was reported last week in the research journal Nature along with a similar, but independent, work by a team of German scientists.

Coming nearly a decade after the mapping of the human genome, the achievement is medically significant. The action or inaction of proteins — complex organic molecules — is responsible for each and every life process.

Pandey thinks that understanding proteins is not only more complex but also more clinically relevant. “We all know that the gene that codes the growth hormone insulin is present not just in the pancreas, but also in muscles, in the brain and other organs. But why does only the pancreas produce insulin? Studying proteins could help us find definitive answers to riddles such as this,” he says.

Other scientists have hailed the work. “This is a commendable feat by Professor Pandey and his team. Considering that India had missed the genome mapping bus a couple of decades ago owing to the stupid decision of not being part of the multi-billion dollar project, this is an opportunity that needs to be seized upon,” says Tapas Kumar Kundu, who specialises in the study of proteins at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore.

Pandey thinks it is time India invested in top-quality scientific instruments. He cites the examples of two scientific institutions which recently rejected top-of-the-line instruments because of outdated purchase norms that were being followed. “I have been on panels for choosing mass spectrometers for these institutions. The panels rejected the best machine because there weren’t three matching tenders,” he says. Flawed processes of procurement and corruption may force most centres to settle for older generation machines which can come in the way of cutting edge research, he argues.

Meanwhile, IOB and Nimhans are embarking on a programme to develop a detailed proteome map of the human brain. And Pandey is flying high — in more ways than one.