Supported by the Newton-Bhabha Fund PhD programme, researchers from India are receiving a boost to their vaccine research through placements at renowned UK institutions – leading to promising developments and outcomes in India, as well as contributing to international efforts in tackling pressing global public health challenges caused by viruses.
In partnership with the Government of India’s Department of Science and Technology and Department of Biotechnology, the Newton-Bhabha Fund brings together UK and Indian scientific research and innovation sectors to find joint solutions to global challenges.
The British Council India is a delivery partner for the PhD Placement programme which helps to facilitate knowledge sharing between Indian and UK institutions, develop individual capacity through international training and development opportunities as well as to build cultural understanding and foster long-term sustainable research collaborations.
We spoke to three recent programme beneficiaries to learn more about their research and what they gained from their UK research experiences.
Screening and vaccination programmes against HPV in India
Supriti Ghosh from the Manipal School of Life Sciences at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education spent four months in 2019 at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Her research is on human papillomavirus (HPV) genotyping in immunised women with persistent high-risk HPV infection.
Supriti explains: ‘Despite being one of the preventable cancers, both the incidence and mortality rates due to cervical cancer are high in countries such as India. This can be attributed to the lack of regular screening and prophylactic measures.’
‘Countries like England, Scotland and Wales have drastically reduced the incidence of the disease through routine cytology screening and HPV immunisation programmes.’
‘The collaborative work done during the placement has indicated the need for regular screening and vaccination which we hope to implement in the Indian population to control the high prevalence and incidence of cervical cancer among Indian women.’
Zika virus entry: unravelling the therapeutic opportunities and drug discovery
Meanwhile, Nitin Sharma from the Indian Institute of Technology Mandi travelled to the UK to spend four months at the University of Leeds in 2019 to further his research into Zika virus.
Nitin says: ‘India is at high risk of developing Zika virus infection due to the geographical and environmental conditions, and the recurrent public health threat imposed by Zika virus in various geographical areas necessitates the immediate development of antiviral compounds or vaccines.
‘Currently, there are no approved vaccines or drugs available, and the number of babies born with congenital Zika syndrome continues to grow with life-long impacts.’
Nitin says: ‘With the limited Zika virus surveillance and laboratory research in India, funding from Newton Bhabha Placement for UK-India collaborative research has really helped me in understanding Zika virus pathogenesis and screening of novel antiviral inhibitors against the viral entry.’
He adds: ‘The techniques and knowledge gained during the placement will be further implemented in research against other prevalent flaviviruses in India such as Dengue and Chikungunya viruses, as well as Japanese encephalitis.'
Reverse engineering animal viruses to help develop vaccines
In 2018, Narayan Ramamurthy from the Indian Veterinary Research Institute spent four months as part of his research at the UK’s Pirbright Institute, where he studied the techniques in developing a genetically reverse-engineered virus - specifically negative sense RNA virus.
Narayan explains: ‘The bivalent vaccines produced in this technique can be used in domestics animals, and can address at least two different diseases in a single go.’
The benefits are not just to the vaccinated livestock but also positively impact on farmers’ livelihoods. Narayan says: ‘In a developing country, farming is the main backbone for sustenance, animal husbandry is a vital part in it.
‘By protecting livestock, we can improve the lives of farmers and the national economy.’
Benefits of the UK experience
All three scholars are enthusiastic about their placement experiences at leading UK institutions.
Narayan says: ‘The placement programme is a lifetime opportunity for a young researcher like me. It helps me to push the level of science and confidence in approaching a problem in new level. The knowledge I gained will follow me in my whole path of career.’
Supriti adds: ‘The PhD placement was a great opportunity for me to interact with eminent researchers and to showcase my own work. This exposure has helped me to establish strong connections for future collaborations, has helped me define my objectives after PhD and to explore possible post-doctoral positions at the host institute.’
Nitin agrees: ‘This placement has provided me an opportunity to work and interact with various experienced faculties from University of Leeds. The suggestions and collaborations from this meeting will improve the impact of my research and help my career progression into a senior scientific researcher.’