Scientist targeting cancer cells with nanotech has Pune roots

Rinti Banerjee's name may not ring a bell for many. For those who have read about her work on delivering micro-nutrients in pregnant women through the skin, and the scientist fraternity in India it surely does.

The professor at the Department of Biosciences & Bioengineering, IIT-B recently won the prestigious National Award for Women Bio-scientists (under 45 category) of the Department of Biotechnology, GoI for her work on nanoparticle aerosols for treatment of respiratory diseases like lung injury, respiratory distress, and tuberculosis. The aerosols direct the drugs to the sites of action, reducing the doses needed and hence side effects.

Banerjee, who is also an associate faculty at the Centre for Research in Nanotechnology and Science at IIT-B, has Pune roots. She was brought up in Pune.

Banerjee was born in Mumbai but her education right from school was in Pune. "My time in Pune has been lot of fun and I have fond memories of the place. I visit Pune to meet family members. I also have a few collaborators in Pune, so my connection with the city is long lasting," Banerjee said.

After completing MBBS from B J Medical College, she was set to on her way to be an MD in Medicine when she realised there were many inadequacies with the way of treating many diseases. "We were either unable to treat the condition with current drugs or these treatments had severe, limiting side effects."

One thing led to another and she realised she was more inclined to research than clinical practice. "One specific example that led me towards research was the high mortality of pre-term babies due to Neonatal Respiratory Distress Syndrome that I observed," she said. This is a condition in babies born before their lungs can make a detergent-like material called pulmonary surfactant. When babies lack surfactant, their lungs collapse like deflated balloons. "The thought of replacing surfactant arose in my mind and I decided to read about it."

This led her to do a PhD in Biomedical Engineering at IIT Bombay followed by a postdoctoral fellowship with Dr John Clements at the University of California, San Francisco. In 2001, she returned to India to join IIT Bombay as a faculty and set up her research laboratory.

A major area of her work involves developing specifically engineered nanoparticles that can be used to deliver anti-cancer drugs. "We disguise the drugs into particles which resemble food-like substances and fool the body into taking them in as it would take nutrients." Once inside the cells, the particles release drugs to treat the disease. Further the nanoparticles are designed to be "smart" such that they can release their drug only in presence of certain stimuli associated with cancers. This reduces toxicity and increases effectiveness of anti-cancer drugs. "We are looking for industry and clinical partners for further translation and clinical trials."

Another area has been to develop low-cost technologies for global health. "We are designing nutrient loaded cosmetics for delivery of micro nutrients in pregnant women through the skin." This can lead to easy acceptability and reduction in mortality in newborns due to malnutrition and folic acid deficiency.

"I would definitely encourage girls to get into research. There are interesting schemes launched by the Government of India like Women Scientist Re-entry Grants and Child Care Provisions to encourage women to follow their dreams without hindrance."

She added, "I would like to encourage medical professionals to explore careers in medical research. More inter-disciplinary teams are required to make an impact in this area."

The IIT website shows she has published more than 100 papers in international journals and has a number of patents to her credit. Recently, Izon Science Ltd, New Zealand, in recognition of her contribution to nanomedicine gifted her a lab instrument in presence of the New Zealand Minister of Science and Innovation.

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