In the minds of much of the public, Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is usually associated with radical student politics. For those on the Right, ideologically opposed to the politics of its students, JNU is considered to be a den of ‘anti-nationals’, ‘Maoists’ and ‘Naxal-sympathisers’.
But in what could be news for some who have demanded #ShutDownJNU, not everybody at the university is a red-flag-waving, ‘Lal Salaam‘ chanting, wannabe-revolutionary. Some, like the students and faculty at JNU’s Special Cell for Molecular Medicine (SCMM), are engaged in groundbreaking scientific research and recently achieved a breakthrough which could potentially help us tackle drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis (TB).
In a paper published in the journal Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology, the JNU team claimed to have demonstrated the ability of a compound called Bergenin, isolated from the leaves of the shala tree, to provide an alternative treatment for TB. The discovery is particularly important in the context of the proliferation of TB strains that don’t respond to conventional TB drugs. “Irrespective of socio-economic status, almost all countries throughout the globe are under threat, especially when the drug-resistant strains are emerging,” Gobardhan Das, professor at SCMM and corresponding author of the paper told Newslaundry. “We see multiple drug resistant [strains], extensively drug resistant and in fact, totally drug resistant [strains] have been discovered which are resistant to all the possible antibiotics. Therefore, we need to have a different kind of strategy to eradicate or treat this bug,” Das stated.
“The special thing about this discovery is that normally if you have an anti-TB drug, like all the 12 front line drugs are, they actually go and target the bacteria,” Anand Ranganathan, assistant professor at SCMM and one of the paper’s authors, said. “Over time, because you evolutionarily (sic) can’t compete with bacteria, the bacteria tries to survive and those bacteria survive that are able to change its protein machine in such a way that the drug is no longer able to bind to it,” he told Newslaundry.
Research at SCMM, however, shows that Bergenin targets the TB bacterium differently. “The speciality of this compound is it doesn’t directly kill the bugs. Rather, it modulates your own immune system so that it can eradicate the bug,” Das explained. This discovery has repercussions beyond curing drug-resistant TB as it can be used as a treatment for “other pathogenic organisms” as well, Das added.
The impetus for the research into Bergenin’s effects was provided by an interaction between Das and Debprasad Chattopadhyay, director and scientist at National Institute of Traditional Medicine, Belagavi, Karnataka. “Almost three years back, I was in Kolkata and met with Dr Chattopadhyay and we were talking about what we should focus on especially for diseases like TB, malaria etc,” Das recalled. “We came up with the idea that we should do something with natural compounds which India is a vast resource of. Then he [Chattopadhyay] got many of these compounds and isolated them.”
One of these compounds was Bergenin. “We saw that this compound was very fascinating. It’s not killing the bug but it is modulating the cell where it [the bug] is hiding,” Das said.
While these positive results were seen in tests conducted in vitro (outside of a living organism), the real challenge was to show that the compound would work in vivo, for which the team tested Bergenin’s effect on mice infected with TB bacterium.
The results of the in vivo experiments surprised the team. Ved Prakash Dwivedi, one of the paper’s authors, recalled the disbelief the team experienced when their thesis appeared to have been confirmed in vivo. “When we looked at the lung [of the mice] and we didn’t see any granulomatic lesions, we were excited,” Dwivedi told Newslaundry. “We went to the main lab and told sir [Das] and he was like, ‘No, no, this isn’t possible! You have to show me the bacterial plate where you’ve treated with Bergenin which is showing the bacterial burden is down. Until that, I won’t believe you.'” Only after capturing photographs of various organs which had been infected and treated with Bergenin, “he [Das] started believing us”, Dwivedi remembered.
However, Ranganathan clarified that bergenin cannot be a replacement for existing anti-TB drugs. “This [bergenin] is not a stand-alone drug against TB and can only be used in adjunct therapy, in combination with other drugs,” he pointed out.
While the team has tasted success after years of rigour and hard work, there is still a long road ahead. “We have to take it to the next step,” Das commented. “Probably in a better animal model and then, of course, clinical trials. For that, we’re looking for the money and if we get it, we’ll take it to the next level.”
The combination of Bergenin and regular anti-TB drugs could not only prove immensely useful but could also become a necessity in the future. “Statistics say that if we don’t take care of drug-resistant TB right now, by 2030 almost all the cases will be only drug-resistant TB,” Das said. Given the ominous prediction, one can hope that the JNU team continues its research and achieves further breakthroughs, regardless of campaigns to #ShutDownJNU.
Disclosure: Anand Ranganathan is a consulting editor at Newslaundry