With an array of desktop computers, the Institute of Bioinformatics (IOB) in the International Technology Park in Bangalore could, at first glance, pass off as yet another IT firm.
But this no-frills laboratory is now turning into a crucible of cutting-edge research to detect biomarkers (proteins) for early diagnosis of cancers unique to the Indian population.
Located in the Park’s Discoverer unit, the IOB, a non-profit research centre started in 2002, collects, classifies and stores biochemical and biological information. The IOB has invested $250,000 on the laboratory this year and plans to plough in more funds earned through collaborative research projects with universities and medical centres in the US. “A major reason why the survival rate of cancer patients is poor, is because they are diagnosed late,” said the Institute’s founder and chief scientific adviser Akhilesh Pandey. “If we can detect cancers early, the efficacy of treatment can be improved.”
The seed capital for the laboratory came through similar collaborative projects, including one with the University of Michigan, to generate a user-friendly web-based package of profiles for cancer, with data from thousands of research studies related to cancer.
Pandey pointed out that the quest to discover biomarkers is a relatively new field because the genomic and proteomic technologies that are used to identify them are also new.
The scientists in Bangalore will look for proteins found only in cancer patients, in blood samples from normal and cancer-affected tissues of patients. “Currently, there is no acclaimed leader in this field,” said Pandey. “That’s why we are so excited. An ideal biomarker could be tested in a person’s blood.’’ So the long-term aim of the research is the development of blood tests for different cancer types.
The team hopes to discover an initial set of “candidate” biomarkers within a year, first for gastrointestinal cancers on 40 patients. Further tests will then be conducted on a larger number of patients, to figure if the biomarkers are viable in a larger population.
The work can also be extended to apply to diseases like malaria.
Next year, Pandey will submit a proposal to the department of biotechnology in Delhi, to establish a centre of excellence in biomarker research at the IOB.
“We have 35 scientists now working at IOB and we will take that number to 100 in a year,” he said.