Columns @IndiaBioscience

Brachistochrone: A metaphor for life and science


Aravind Rengan is an assistant professor at IIT Hyderabad. From being a medical doctor to becoming a nanoscientist, he took a rather circuitous route to becoming a researcher. In an interesting and entertaining talk today at YIM 2017, Aravind talked about his research. Below are excerpts from an subsequent interview with IndiaBioscience.

Aravind Rengan
Aravind Rengan  (Photo: Aravind Rengan)

In your talk today you mentioned Brachistochrone – a concept from physics-is a metaphor for your life and research. Can you please elaborate on that?

Brachistochrone is a problem in physics put forward by Bernoulli in the 17th century where he asked what is the fastest route to travel from point A to B? Intuitively one would think that the shortest path would be the fastest. But it is not so. Here gravity plays a role and it is the longer route which is fastest. This fastest path is shaped somewhat like a curve and is called the Brachistochrone path.

Similarly, in my career I took a longer route. After finishing my MBBS I decided to do an M.Tech and I was the oldest in my class. A PhD followed and eventually I was able to get a faculty position in IIT, Hyderabad. Surprisingly, I am one of the younger ones in the lot. So I took a longer path and yet was fast. That’s the analogy I was trying to draw on.

Tell us a bit about what do you work on in your lab?

Brachistochrone is a good analogy for how I approached work in my lab too. Usually people start with a nanomaterial, look at its applications and publish. However, in my lab we are going that extra mile to see if our nanomaterial can qualify for clinical validation too. We are taking the longer route and yet hoping to get there faster.

We work with silica gold – a nanomaterial used in photothermal therapy to treat cancer. It is a nonbiodegradable material, and it stays in the body for a long time. It is too big to be excreted out of the body through the renal route. It needs to be in the range of 5 – 8 nm to be excreted that way. However, this size range is not acceptable for photothermal therapy; it is too small.

We have come up with a novel way of synthesising these particles that help them meet both criteria – effective renal clearance and optimal phototherapy. What we have done is replace the silica in silica-gold with liposomes. Our gold-coated liposomes are big enough to respond to phototherapy. Additionally, during the process of phototherapy, they are degraded into very small particles that can be effectively cleaned out of the body through the renal route.

Are you doing something to make your research more relevant in the Indian context?

The liposomes we use are very expensive, which makes any drug modeled on our nanomaterial very expensive too. We are now working to replace it with things that cost less and can make drugs more affordable.

Research in nanotechnology has exploded in India in the recent past. Every week we have a paper that either talks about a more efficient way of synthesising a nanomaterial or about a new magical nanomaterial. However, hardly anything gets translated into a real product. What do you have to say about that?

Well, as a researcher one always thinks of doing something novel. Currently the novelty lies in making more fancy nanomaterial. It is also important for getting our publications.

However translating all this research into a commercially or a clinically viable product takes some time. For example Doxil and Abraxane are two nanodrugs available for breast cancer. Technology for these was developed long ago. So all the new research coming out now, might or might not get translated into something worthwhile. But we won’t know until some time.

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