Different Paths to Immunity
Arindam Bhattacharyya, Ph.D., an assistant professor of immunology at the University of Calcutta in India, came to Georgetown University Medical Center for three months this summer as a Fulbright Scholar. He studies cancer immunology, and he opted to join the team at the laboratory of Robert Clarke, Ph.D., D.Sc., Dean for Research.
“As a visitor, I am very charmed by the beauty of Georgetown University, and everything about the lab environment, and overall, Bob Clarke—he is just always inspiring and helping, all the time,” says Bhattacharyya.
During his stay, he worked on the problem of autophagy in breast cancer immunology.
Autophagy is a fascinating and still mysterious topic that reminds us how little we really know about what goes on inside cells. The etymology of the term is Greek for “self consuming,” which is one of the things cells seem to do on a regular basis to balance metabolic processes, and at other times in reaction to certain conditions of stress, such as starvation. Somehow this highly regulated process is associated both with the health and pathology of cells. Clarke’s lab is attempting to elucidate the interplay of the integrated molecular signaling networks that determine the fate of breast cancer cells. Autophagy is one of the puzzle pieces in that effort.
Bhattacharyya became interested in immunology as a graduate student studying immune system variations in animals in the department of zoology at the University of Calcutta. “It was very interesting to me the thought that you can manipulate the immune system in different ways to fight diseases, including cancer.” His Ph.D. dissertation focused on the anti-cancer properties of black tea compounds.
He highly recommends the beneficial properties of black tea.
“Ari is a terrific scientist, working at one of India's top research institutions,” says Clarke. “The collaborations formed during his Fulbright Fellowship research here at Georgetown will strengthen the links between our two research programs and contribute further to Georgetown University's broader engagement in India.”
Speaking of the different approaches to research at GUMC and India, Bhattacharyya says, “In India, the problem is always funding. You have a lot in your brain, but you cannot produce a lot because you are always short of funding—however things are changing now. In the U.S., everything here is very systematic, very pragmatic.” He notes that in India, the focus is on basic science. “At Georgetown, I found that most of the research is funded on the basis of applied—translational. It’s good for a short span of time. But if you cannot fund the basic research, it will be stagnant after 6 to 10 years.” To give an example, he compares Einstein’s basic understanding of relativity to applications of electricity—you don’t get to the highest levels of science through applications.
Where the two approaches merge is in cancer immunology, Bhattacharyya points out. “There is always the debate, the egg and the chicken. You don’t know which comes first. But you do know that if you have a weak immune system, you can be at risk for cancer. And also you know that if you have cancer, the immune system is weakened. So if you can increase your defense capacity, you can fight or possibly prevent cancer in a better way.”
What we need to understand, he says, is the precise nature of the damage to the immune system networks in the patient with breast cancer, and how can we manipulate those networks to strengthen the body’s ability to fight the disease.
As a result of his experience, Bhattacharyya seeks to establish an ongoing research collaboration between GUMC and the University of Calcutta. “I came to Georgetown more as a cultural ambassador than as a researcher. I like to contribute my experience with all of my lab mates and Georgetown friends, that I am from India, from an immunological background, and that we have a lot to learn from each other and together.”
By Frank Reider, GUMC Communications