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‘At Harvard, I hope to make an impact with cutting-edge research in the field of personalised medicine’

Apeejay Pitampura alumnus Dr Saumya Gupta, a postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard Medical School and Harvard Stem Cell Institute, is part of an elite group of emerging scientists who can bridge mathematics, sciences, and computational science to address some of the most challenging questions in the cancer disease space

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“An average average week at the Harvard Medical School and Harvard Stem Cell Institute is a potpourri of planning and doing experiments (I make mini organs in dish from stem cells from intestine and liver), analysing data (80% of my time), reading literature to understand every aspect of the work, making slides to tell the story that the data is conveying, developing hypotheses, and then planning the next steps,” says Apeejay alumnus Dr Saumya Gupta

She grew up dreaming of working at the intersection of life sciences, business, and technology. And now she is living the dream. A Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard Medical School and Harvard Stem Cell Institute, her research interests lie in understanding the functional consequences of cellular heterogeneity in homeostasis and disease. For this, Dr Gupta uses bulk and single-cell genomic technologies, sequencing-based drug screening, and analyses high-throughput gene expression data.

In 2020, Dr Saumya Gupta was awarded the $175000 Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation’s Research Fellowship to uncover a novel mechanism regulating gene expression heterogeneity, with implications in colorectal cancer and personalised medicine. The Apeejay Pitampura alumnus is part of a select group of emerging scientists in the world “who can bridge mathematics, sciences, and computational science to address some of the most challenging questions in the cancer disease space.”

In an interview, she acknowledges the role her teachers at Apeejay School, Pitampura, played in making her comfortable in all the branches of STEM at an early age.  She also chats about her routine at the Harvard Medical School and Harvard Stem Cell Institute and how Covid made her feel the distance between India and the United States for the first time. Dr Gupta goes on to lend valuable insights into the role genetics and genomics can play in diagnosis and treatment of life-threatening ailments such as cancer and the exciting new approaches in cancer treatment and their implications for developing nations such as India. Edited excerpts:

How is an average day usually like for a post-doctoral fellow at the prestigious Harvard Medical School and Harvard Stem Cell Institute?

An average day is very variable, but an average week is a potpourri of planning and doing experiments (I make mini organs in dish from stem cells from intestine and liver), analysing data (80% of my time), reading literature to understand every aspect of the work, making slides to tell the story that the data is conveying, developing hypotheses, and then planning the next steps. I am working with two mentors, so I have once or twice a month check-in with them to discuss the direction my research and analysis is taking. When I am not in the lab, you will find me organising or participating panels, networking events, workshops, or leadership events for the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) consulting club.

Did you always want to be a cutting-edge medical researcher? When did you realise this was your true calling?

I always wanted to work at the intersection of life sciences, business, and technology. Thinking about a day when medical research could provide personalised treatments to patients given their unique genetics and lifestyle and additionally have the potential to predict a patient’s unique response to therapy excited me even as a high school student at Apeejay School, and as an undergraduate in Biomedical Sciences. I got some of the best opportunities in India in the life sciences field to explore these questions, especially when I joined the Integrated PhD programme at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai.I identified very early in my PhD the impact I can have in the cutting-edge research happening around the world in the field of personalised medicine. I received various national and international travel fellowships to share my research, collaborate and ask my questions to some of the best minds in the field of quantitative genetics and genomics in Europe and the United States. It was my PhD that gave me the confidence to develop my thinking, generate hypotheses, and implement my thoughts by doing experiments and data analysis to solve some of the most challenging questions in the field of personalised medicine with a specialisation in stem cell/cancer biology.

What role can genetics and genomics play in the diagnosis and treatment of life-threatening ailments such as cancer?

Every individual is unique, and so is their vulnerability towards diseases or the way they respond to treatments. People diagnosed with life threatening diseases especially cancer can have very different progressions of the disease or respond very differently to the same treatment. This occurs since cancer is a multifactorial disease, with many genetic and environmental factors influencing its emergence, spread (metastasis), and remission. Scientists in the field of genetics and genomics have been working hard to identify and describe all mechanisms underlying cancer empirically and systematically —the signalling molecules, pathways, and their interactions. What causes a normal cell in the human body, whether a blood cell or intestinal cell, to divide uncontrollably and break down the orderly system of cell division and cell death? Are there biomarkers in the genetic sequence of these individuals that can be used for early prognosis and in shaping the treatment profile? Why does one individual with this biomarker go on and develop the disease, while another individual with the same biomarker does not? These are some of the questions scientists in the realm of genetics and genomics are addressing.

What are your memories of the time you spent at Apeejay School, Pitampura?

I have some very fond happy memories at Apeejay School, Pitampura. I vividly remember the practicals I did in the chemistry and physics labs. I remember feeling like a sleuth when Upma Raizada Ma’am would give me an innocent looking white salt to analyse its elements composition, it was never the common salt (haha) but something as complex and exciting as strontium nitrate (its used in fireworks, thanks to its glorious red flames!). I would spend hours analysing it in the lab. I also remember learning about pendulums and their swinging motion in physics classes taken by Kiran Nayak Ma’am.  I was amazed at how a simple device invented by a humble observation can define one of the most complex ideas in our world: time! I remember fondly many of my teachers: my Hindi teacher Dr. Chauhan, Physical education teacher Arvind Kaushal Sir, Maths teacher Verma Sir, and also my Principal Dr. DK Bedi who would often step in and take some very interesting Physics classes. Looking back, I feel that it was not one teacher in particular but multiple teachers from different and diverse disciplines of sciences who influenced me. I think this is a major factor in me being where I am today. I am part of a group of emerging scientists who can bridge mathematics, sciences, and computational science to address some of the most challenging questions in cancer disease space. I think having teachers who have made me comfortable in all the branches of STEM from an early age has enabled this.

Which are the life lessons that you picked up while you were studying at Apeejay?

 The learnings and values I gained during school time are some of the most innate parts of my personality today, be it my confidence to ask questions, discipline to keep on learning, or the appreciation for hard work and rigour I learnt early on that one needs to truly learn about a new field.

What are your future plans? Would you stay in academia to find answers that help unravel the mysteries of genetics and stem cell research, or become a medical practitioner or scientist at a renowned hospital? 

My parents have always impressed upon me the power of a holistic education.My dad started his education as a botanist who went on to get his MBA and become the vice president finance for one of the biggest real estate companies in India. My mom has been teaching accountancy and business studies in high school for more than 30 years. From them I have learnt the basics of economics and business, operations of the corporate world and entrepreneurial spirit. Going ahead, I am planning on combining these learnings with my expertise in healthcare and move towards the business strategy side of science. I recently received an offer from Bain & Company to work as a generalist consultant in the US. In this role, I will be working with fantastic PhDs and MBAs on some of the most pressing and impactful strategy and business problems, both in the healthcare industry and outside.

The Covid-19 pandemic changed the way we knew the world. How did it affect you at a personal or professional level?

It made me feel the distance between the US and India for the first time. Being away from home and from your country especially during these daunting times was very hard. Professionally, I used this time to explore additional facets of the healthcare business, other than the research and development. I worked with a pre-clinical start-up company at Boston on a pro-bono life science strategy consulting engagement to help evaluate their “drug indication” for expansion in other diseases. All this work was of course virtual, but I learnt that I could leverage my scientific training to solve problems in more diverse fields and industries.

Which are the emerging approaches in cancer treatment that have implications for a developing nation such as India? At which stage of development are they at?

Being someone who studies gene regulation and RNA biology, I am for sure excited to look at the results of RNA therapeutic vaccines that BioNTech, a German Biotech company that made history with its Covid-19 mRNA vaccine along with their partner Pfizer, is developing to treat cancer. These vaccines will be personalised and will take into consideration each patient’s tumour that is different from the other. One of the biggest advantages of this technology is that it is cheaper than other new and very promising technologies such as the CAR-T cell therapy, making them a very attractive option for our nation. Their early clinical trials have been successful, they are safe, and tumours shrink. And they recently announced Phase 2 trials for colorectal cancer patients. I am optimistic!

“The Dana-Farber $174,750 fellowship supports my work in which I am studying gene expression in Crohn’s disease. By characterising the differences in gene expression between healthy and diseased intestines, I aim to assess how epigenetics may be altered in diseased cells to be more like healthy cells. If successful, this work should uncover new information about the biology of Crohn’s disease, and open new doors to disease treatment and prevention.”

-Saumya Gupta, Postdoctoral Research Fellow (Genomics and stem cell biology), Harvard Medical school

Please tell us about the $175000 Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation’s Research Fellowship that you have been awarded.

The Crohn’s Foundation has played a part in breakthrough after breakthrough in treating inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), improving the quality of life for millions of children and adults. The foundation has a history of providing valuable funding to DanaFarber researchers tackling projects related to gastrointestinal diseases. The Dana-Farber of $174,750 fellowship supports my work in which I am studying gene expression in Crohn’s disease. By characterising the differences in gene expression between healthy and diseased intestines, I aim to assess how epigenetics may be altered in diseased cells to be more like healthy cells. In Crohn’s disease, chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract can skip or leave normal areas in between patches of diseased intestine. I have demonstrated that cells can maintain stable differences in gene expression, and that changing their epigenetic memory can make cells more similar to each other. If successful, this work should uncover new information about the biology of Crohn’s disease, and open new doors to disease treatment and prevention.

Aasheesh Sharma is a seasoned journalist with an experience of more than 25 years spread over newspapers, news agencies, magazines and television. He has worked in leadership positions in media groups such as Hindustan Times, India Today, Times of India, NDTV, UNI and IANS. He is a published author and his essay on the longest train journey in India was included in an anthology of writings on the railways, brought out by Rupa Publications. As the Editor of Apeejay Newsroom, he is responsible for coverage of the latest news and developments in the Apeejay institutions. He can be reached at [email protected] He tweets @Aasheesh74

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