Dr. Prajakta Dandekar

Recently, Dr. Prajakta Dandekar from Nanomedicine Research Group was featured in the news because of her inspiring journey and innovative research in the field of tissue engineering and 3D Cell culture. As the article was published in Marathi, this is an attempt to interpret it in English for our readers across the country.

Dr. Prajakta Dandekar is one of India’s foremost scientists working in this field with 87 research articles, 2 books, 9 chapters in various books, and 11 patents till date. She is the first woman scientist from India to obtain the Marie Curie-ERS Co-Fund, postdoctoral fellowship. Let’s talk about Dr. Prajakta’s research, which is very interesting and sounds like science fiction to many –

Before a newly manufactured drug makes its way to the market, it has to be tested rigorously to understand its side effects as it is not possible to predict the side effects of the drug solely based on its components or properties. That is why the drug undergoes testing on animals which is also called preclinical studies followed by testing on humans which is known as clinical trials. Very often, animal testing fails to accurately predict the effects of the drugs because animals tend to process chemicals differently than humans. This explains the outrageous 90% failure rate of drugs in clinical trials. This not only has an adverse effect on the human participants but also wastes a lot of essential funds and time which could be otherwise used to discover or develop the right drugs. Thus, attempts are being made to develop models to reduce this risk and bring down the failure rate.

Imagine a scenario where artificial human organs were created in a laboratory to test these drugs. What if the initial preclinical studies were carried out on these organs rather than animals? Sounds like a fictional story, isn’t it? It is not and the work in this field is already underway. This is the story of Dr. Prajakta Jain and her companion in the field of research and life, Dr. Ratnesh Jain from Nanomedicine Research Group at Mumbai’s Institute of Chemical Technology. Being brought up in a family of medical practitioners and science graduates, Dr. Prajakta was motivated to pursue science in college. Being passionate about patient care, she wanted to follow the path of her family by entering a government medical school in Mumbai. When this option was out of the question, she rejected offers from private medical colleges and other courses to join the Institute of Chemical Technology (then UDCT — University Department of Chemical Technology) to pursue Pharmaceutical Sciences.

During her Ph.D., she had the opportunity to participate in a first-of-its-kind entrepreneurship competition (now called BIRAC) organized by the Department of Biotechnology of the Government of India. Her team was amongst four other teams who were selected to present their idea at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. This competition gave Dr. Prajakta a newfound perspective on how her research should benefit the common man. During this time she met Dr. Ratnesh, now her husband who is also a faculty at ICT, Mumbai. Dr. Ratnesh received a Post Doctoral Fellowship from the Humboldt Foundation and Prajakta from the Marie Curie-ERS CoFund for their research on intracellular siRNA delivery against lung infections at the University of Saarland in Germany with Prof. Dr. Claus-Michael Lehr. Having gained proficient experience in their field during their time in Europe, Dr. Prajakta and Dr. Ratnesh returned to India in 2012 to start a new research laboratory at ICT, Mumbai.

Currently, animals are being used to test cosmetics and related drugs which raises a lot of ethical concerns. As a matter of fact, animal testing for cosmetics has been completely banned in Europe. That is why researchers are actively looking for solutions to finding alternatives to the current animal models.

Now let’s dive deep into Dr. Prajakta’s research at Nanomedicine Research Group. As an alternative to animals, her work is focused on developing in-vitro models that would allow an analysis of drugs outside a living organism in the laboratory. For the past four decades, cells cultured in 2D i.e., grown as single layers in a container, have been extensively used for drug discovery and cancer research. Here all the cells are exposed to the entire nutrients and additives like drugs. However, cells inside the body do not grow and function in this manner. Thus, using this model often leads to inaccurate prediction of drug action. This is the major limitation associated with this model and that is why cells cultured in 3D are being developed to tackle these limitations.

Cells cultured in 3D

3D culture conditions more closely resemble the natural environment for cells. This along with many other factors of the model makes it easier for scientists to obtain accurate results for their analysis. Dr. Prajakta’s laboratory is engaged in developing different 3D culture structures such as spheroids, organoids, and organ-on-a-chip (OOC). Of these, OOCs are a technological marvel brought together by expertise in fields such as cell biology, engineering, and biomaterial technology. This device is a ‘biomimetic’ system that mimics the functionality of human organs by providing the ideal environment for the cells. Taking the examples from the laboratory, the development of skin-on-a-chip is underway which could provide a great platform to test cosmetics and other topical drugs. Also, work is being done on developing retina-on-a-chip which would further be useful to understand and treat retinal degenerative diseases.

One of the exciting future prospects of organ-on-chips is that they may be utilized for the development of personalized therapies that can potentially be used to make person-specific predictions about disease prevention and treatment, particularly for chronic disorders like cancers and autoimmune conditions. Scientists around the globe are aiming at developing a “human-on-a-chip” consisting of different OOCs which could open doors to new possibilities in drug development.

The laboratory is also involved in 3D bioprinting of artificial organs which would ultimately enhance the reproducibility of the research. Artificial organs can partially replace animal investigations and reduce the load on them. They can help in the sustainable evaluation of new drugs, cosmetics, and delivery systems so that safer and effective options are available in the market. Such models can improve the success rate of drugs in clinical trials.

Dr. Prajakta considers the role of her family, husband, and all the guides to be essential in her success. She explained that it was due to their cooperation that it was possible for her to achieve all the objectives in her field of research and personal life as well.

Dr. Dandekar has a special message to all the budding researchers of our country. “Success and failures, both should be used as learning measures. Success teaches you ‘how to do it right’ and failures teach you how to ‘avoid it in your future steps’. It is great to succeed, but it is okay to fail, it is okay to be dejected, it is okay to feel stuck, it is okay to feel frustrated, but more important is to be able to push these aside and to continue.” She also explains that many times it’s just necessary to hang in there, to believe in your projects no matter the deflections and just continue having faith in your team to achieve your goals.

With a team of over 30 research students under the guidance and leadership of Dr. Prajakta and Dr. Under Ratnesh’s leadership, the Nanomedicine Research group is working relentlessly to make this science fiction into a reality.