My journey so far

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I was born in a small hill station called Dehradun, at the foothills of the great Himalayas in India. All “Doonites” will vouch for the fact that Dehradun is the true heaven on earth! My father being a scientist in the Defense Research and Development Organisation, Ministry of Defense (India) and my mother a biology teacher; I have never known what life without science is. As a kid I marveled at how amazing the beings around me were, how everything was so synchronously functioning. My love for the “living world” drove me to opt for Biology in high school at Convent of Jesus and Mary and St. Joseph’s Academy, Dehradun. Enriching worlds…learning experiences.

Convinced that science was the way for me, after school I opted to study Medical Biotechnology in Manipal University, Karnataka (which is way way down south of India). Manipal was the place where I first got my first hands on training in science. From dissecting frog hearts to test the effect of drugs causing muscle contraction to counting chromosomes under the microscope, it was a wonderful atmosphere full of excited and dedicated scientists. I was lucky to be exposed to brilliant science and a great infrastructure with access to world class instruments. I obtained an in-depth knowledge and training in Stem Cell Biology, Immunology, Cell and Molecular Biology. The more I read about stem cells and regenerative medicine, the more intrigued I became. By the end of my Masters, I knew I wanted to be a stem cell biologist!

A quick Skype interview and a 7-min chalk talk later, I suddenly realized that my life was going to change…I was going to Germany for PhD! Probably the best phase of my life, I completed my PhD in the lab of Prof. Bruce A. Edgar in Heidelberg University, Germany (lab has now moved to Utah, USA). During my PhD, I standardized a protocol for the isolation of rare Drosophila intestinal stem cells and other cell populations for gene expression profiling (Dutta et al., Current protocols in Stem Cell Biology, 2013, 2015). Using FACS and RNASeq, I generated the regional, cell specific transcriptome profiles of Drosophila intestinal cells. Multiple novel intestinal stem cell (ISC) marker genes were validated and using genetic tools, I studied the functions of Smvt (a biotin transporter) and transcriptional regulators like GATAe, sna, kayak (Fos) and Ptx1 in regulation of global and regional ISC behavior  (Dutta et al, 2015, Cell Reports). My PhD work was consolidated into an interactive database: Flygutseq. In my second project, I studied intestinal tumors and uncovered how the niche is appropriated by the tumor initiating cells for cancerous growth. This kind of appropriation of niche signaling by differentiation-defective stem cells may be a common mechanism of early tumorigenesis (Patel et al, Nature Cell Biology, 2015).

During my PhD studies, I also had the great opportunity to be invited by Prof. Nicolas Buchon  as a visiting scholar to Cornell University, USA for a period of 3 months. While the temperatures I faced in Ithaca were -20°C, scientifically it was a once in a lifetime experience! I was awarded the ISSCR and HBIGS travel awards to present my data at various international symposia (e.g. poster teaser at the annual meeting of the ISSCR, Vancouver, Canada, 2014 and Annual Drosophila meeting, Washington DC, 2013). Furthermore, discussions with scientists from diverse stem cell systems in meetings such as “Frontiers in Stem cell and Cancer”, 2015 (EMBO/EMBL) only made me more and more curious and further strengthened my wish to pursue a scientific career.

In Nov 2015 I bid adieu to Germany and joined the lab of Prof. Hans Clevers in Netherlands. Being in a lab where the Organoid technology was pioneered was a marvelous opportunity to learn and grow. I was awarded the Veni grant of €250,000 by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences to carry out my postdoctoral research on developing the organoids in co-cultures with immune cells and gut microbes. As organoids offer multiple applications, I chose to exploit them for 2 major purposes – Disease modeling of cancer heterogeneity, infectious diseases and for studying host-microbe interactions. We developed protocols to micro-inject human intestinal, lung and liver organoids with many different microbes. This enabled us to study not only the effect of the microbes on the organoids but also access closely how the microbes behave in organoid cultures (Heo, Dutta et al, Nature Microbiology, 2018; Dutta et al, Trends in Molecular Medicine, 2018; Dutta et al, Current Opinions in Immunology, 2018).

Currently, I am studying the liver stage malaria in liver organoids, which I believe will be a brilliant system for drug discovery in this rapidly expanding field. I am also involved in tissue engineering projects where the “gut on chip” models are being developed to make the 3D organoid technology high throughput and more precise. Where I will go next is still unknown, but one thing is for sure…wherever I go, science will come with me :)!

PS- Hear me talk more about my work in a Webinar by Thermo Fisher scientific, join if you want to know more about Organoids :)!

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