Through the Researcher’s Lens

An interview with Prof. Vandana B. Patravale

Institute of Chemical Technology houses various research groups that are supervised and mentored by professors of the Institute. “Through a Researcher’s lens” highlights the research work done by these groups and helps us understand the scope of dynamic research, its impact on society, and everything in between.

In the second interview of this series, we had a chat with Prof. Vandana B. Patravale, Professor of Pharmaceutics, Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Technology about the research work being pursued by her group.

Her areas of research include the development of nanocarriers with major emphasis on malaria, cancer, and neurodegenerative disorders, medical device development, nanodiagnostics, and nano vaccines. She has over 200 refereed publications, 11 granted patents, 24 patents in the pipeline, and 2 trademark registries! She has published 2 books and 25 book chapters with international publishers. Dr. Patravale has been active in teaching, research, and service throughout her career. She was awarded

  • Kukreja Oration award 2020,
  • APTIs Dr. Manjushree Pal Best Pharmaceutical Scientist Award 2019,
  • Shri Amrut Mody distinguished researcher award 2018,
  • OPPI women scientist award 2015, Bill Melinda Gates grant award 2015,
  • Best Pharmaceutical Scientist award 2014,
  • VASVIK award 2013,
  • Veneto nanotech award 2013, APTI best teacher award 2012,
  • Fellowship of Maharashtra Academy of Sciences, 2011
  • And K.H. Garda Distinguished researcher award 2009.

She is the Vice president of the CRS-Indian chapter. She is actively collaborating with researchers as well as industries within the country and abroad and has completed Indo-Swiss, Indo-Japan, Indo-UK projects. She has executed all major grants from the Indian Government, focusing on nanotechnology-based product development. She has transferred many technologies to the industry including drug-eluting stents, being marketed in more than 60 countries.

Presenting here, an insight into her stories, work ethics, and her backbone research team behind this mammoth success of hers.

1. Tell us a bit about the aim and scope of the research conducted by this group.

Our research group at the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Technology, ICT Mumbai, is actively involved in designing cost-effective, scalable solutions for diagnosis, prevention, and treatment. The major thrust is on Infectious and Parasitic Diseases, Neurodegenerative Diseases, and Cancer. Other areas of interest are medical devices including drug-eluting stents, intrauterine/intrarectal/intravaginal devices as well as pulmonary devices. We are also involved in the development of biotechnology-based products including technologies for the delivery of siRNA, proteins, and peptides. We have also ventured into the development of in vitro models simulating physiological barriers like the blood-brain barriers.

2. Which sector will this research find applications in?

Majorly our research gets translated into products for the pharmaceutical industry. We identify unmet needs in consultation with clinicians and work systematically to generate proof-of-concept. Lately, we have transferred about 20 technologies based on lipid-based nanocarriers for bioavailability enhancement of BCS class II and IV drugs and site-specific delivery by oral, topical, pulmonary, nasal, ocular, vaginal/rectal, and intravenous routes of administration with the aim to reduce dose, frequency of administration and hence the side effects associated with APIs. Also, the group has the expertise in designing mucosal nano vaccines and nanodiagnostic devices as well as cosmeceuticals/nutraceuticals benefitting the allied industries, which are now being sold in 60+ countries.

3. How does a research group function efficiently?

Efficient functioning in any set-up is always a collaborative effort of all the elements involved, not only in the building of a foundation but also in carrying forward a legacy. Team effort is the key to establish a successful research group, especially in a field like ours where global innovations come about at a very high speed. The primary value that I emphasize in my research group is freedom of expression. The group members are given a chance to work on an idea they are passionate about, of course majorly from within our thrust areas.

The major aim is to develop them as holistic scientists and handholding is done wherever required and necessary. Our group works like a family. Each individual has certain strengths and my job is to potentiate those skills while giving them enough training to overcome weaknesses by mentorship. Other virtues like discipline and consistency automatically follow due to lab culture which thus brings out the full potential of everyone. I also believe in the humongous power of communication, be it in the form of a research publication or a simple presentation to your colleagues. We, therefore, have a weekly activity in the form of a lab meeting where everyone presents their weekly work updates in the form of a PowerPoint presentation. This not only keeps the work progress in check but also allows the students to gain confidence in efficiently presenting their work in front of a technically sound audience. We have open discussions during our lab meets which help everyone brainstorm about not only their own research topic but also about all the work going on in the lab. We also have our share of fun to build cohesive bonds between members.

4. What have been challenges associated with this research topic?

I have always believed that challenges are a stepping stone to success and having experienced it over decades now; I am always looking forward to being challenged in order to perform to my best ability. We started working towards nanotechnology as a science, 3 decades back; and it is at a dynamic stage now. The products have just started rolling out in the market. The major reasons were the unavailability of a regulatory framework within the country. Fortunately, now guidelines are available.

Other challenges majorly are policy/system related. Unlike other countries, we need to plan inventory well in advance to overcome logistics-related challenges, be it for specialized chemicals, excipients, or APIs. We do not have a centralized instrument facility and often we depend on outside agencies for the characterization of our nanosystems.

Having said that, we always strive to develop simple and sustainable alternatives for addressing any of these problems and do not let anything stop us from achieving our goals in the end. These challenges have paved the way for strong networking with global scientists.

5. What was the motivation behind choosing this particular topic/area?

Serving society and working towards its betterment is the reason why the pharmaceutical industry came into existence. Social relevance has always been at the top of our research objectives; hailing from a developing nation, there can be no one else in the world who can understand our problems better than us! That being my driving force, I try and inculcate it into all of my students, be it undergraduates or postgraduates. Another source of motivation is my love for progressive science. I like to be up-to-date with the latest global research and how we can contribute in our own way to not only our nation but the world as a whole.

6. What is one discovery/result in recent times that you find particularly interesting?

We have designed an intranasal drug delivery system for treating Alzheimer’s disease. For this discovery wherein we have used a naturally active, the results of preclinical studies in animals are highly encouraging. In fact, this was the first systematic study that started with computational pharmaceutics (in silico) and progressed to in vitro and in vivo characterization. The student has recently been awarded the SITARE-GYTI award to scale up this formulation and take it ahead as an entrepreneur.

7. What scientific interests should a student have, to be a good fit for this research group?

We have research students from areas ranging from pharmaceutical formulation development, biotechnology, pharmaceutical chemistry as well as pharmacology in my lab. We try to inculcate knowledge and experience from all these fields into our projects, giving research a wider and interdisciplinary perspective at all times. The students applying to my lab should therefore be open to learning and adapting to new things apart from their basic grad subjects. Since we majorly focus on nanomedicine, an experience or knowledge in that aspect would make them better suited to work in my lab. We always strive to develop technologies that are industrially relevant and hence having knowledge about how things work in the pharmaceutical industry would be an added benefit for candidates wanting to join my lab.

8. Considering that we are in uncharted waters with the COVID pandemic, how has that affected the members of the group? How social is distancing implemented in the lab?

The COVID-19 pandemic was something that no one saw coming and it rather stayed for so long. Since the educational institutes were asked to be shut down as per government guidelines, every research student, not only from my lab but all over the world was hit, with respect to their work progress. There was no alternative since we all know that staying indoors has been the need of the hour, citing the horrific loss of life around the globe. In our lab, we continued with the virtual lab meetings in order to boost morale and brainstorm on numerous ways in which we can help in fighting the ongoing pandemic. I can confidently say that our efforts paid off since we received two grants from the Government for working towards the design and development of a diagnostic kit as well as a nanovaccine for COVID-19 diagnosis and prophylaxis, respectively. We also finalized two major industry grants. Apart from that, we participated in numerous webinars and virtual poster presentations to stay up-to-date at all times. We published and communicated multiple research and review manuscripts along with several book chapters during this time, making it a productive stay-at-home exercise for the entire lab. We also were involved in computational pharmaceutics-based work involving computer-aided drug design (CADD), which only required the use of laptops and concerned modules for conducting the work. Some of our undergrad projects were also designed around CADD during this time and I am elated to share that the work even got published in reputed international journals with a high impact factor.

We resumed working in the lab from the time ICT, as per the norms provided by the State government, issued guidelines for permitting research students to work in laboratories. We have made online work schedule sheets wherein we know who is going to be working in the lab, their working hours, and the instrument/s which they would be using during their time in the lab. We follow a timetable which enables everyone to work for around three days a week, on average, thereby maintaining social distancing while also working efficiently.

9. What direction does the group have planned for the times ahead?

We would be sticking to our current schedule which follows all norms of social distancing, in order to be safe not only for ourselves but also for our families back home. We might have to start working in shifts if required. As far as research direction is concerned, we will strive to work in areas of national thrust, providing affordable solutions.

Related News