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Tackling cancer on a new front

New program at MIT’s Koch Institute targets the growing cancer problem in India.

Cancer, which has been predominantly a disease of industrialized nations, is rapidly encroaching on the developing world as people live longer and diagnostic technology improves. Cancer now kills more people in developing countries than HIV, tuberculosis and malaria combined, according to the World Health Organization.

In India, about a million new cases are diagnosed every year, and that number is projected to triple in the next 20 years. Efforts are now under way in India to make cancer research a priority — an endeavor that is getting a boost from a new program at MIT’s David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

The new program, funded by Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chair and managing director of Biocon, one of India’s largest biotechnology firms, will bring Indian scientists to MIT to train for two years. Those researchers will then return to India to help jump-start cancer research programs there.

“As an entrepreneur whose company is pursuing cancer research, I am acutely aware of the need to augment cancer research in the country at a basic scientific level,” says Mazumdar-Shaw. “If we are to develop new onco-therapies for Indian patients, we must create a strong research ethos amongst the medical and scientific communities engaged in the area of cancer.”

Cancer cases in developing nations now make up more than 50 percent of the global total, compared to 15 percent in 1970, according to the World Health Organization. There are several reasons for that, says Sudhir Borgonha GM ’01, CEO of Translational Medicine India, which runs clinical trials in India. Cancer diagnostic technology is becoming more accessible in India, and the population is becoming more aware of the need for early screening, which leads to more diagnoses.

Advances in combating infectious diseases like malaria have also contributed to higher cancer rates. “As people live longer, you’re going to see a lot more diseases that you didn’t see before, when people were dying younger of things like TB and malaria,” says Borgonha, who is not involved in the new program.

New connections

Mazumdar-Shaw, who launched Biocon from her garage in 1978, also recently funded one of the largest cancer hospitals in India, the Mazumdar-Shaw Cancer Centre in Bangalore. After joining the Koch Institute’s Leadership Council in 2008, she came up with the idea of creating a formal linkage between researchers in India and at the Koch Institute.

This new program, the first of its kind, should help spread the Koch Institute’s novel approach of bringing biologists and engineers together to battle cancer, says Tyler Jacks, director of the Koch Institute.

Over the next five years, starting in early 2011, the Mazumdar-Shaw Oncofellows Program will bring about 10 fellows at the postdoctoral level to the Koch Institute. As part of the program, MIT faculty will also travel to India to interact with scientists there.

“People need experience and exposure to collaboration before they can start their own programs,” says Borgonha. “There’s a tradition at schools like MIT that have always had people come and go back and create their own mini-MITs, or mini-Oxfords.”

Scientists returning to India will likely encounter some challenges common in developing nations — many layers of bureaucracy, outdated systems and lack of experienced middle-level professionals — but these will be overcome with time, says Borgonha, adding that India does have many advantages that will help balance the obstacles: “There is adequate capital, enough mentorship, good role models, experienced senior level managers (CEO and board level), adequate thought leaders and infrastructure solutions.”

Indian scientists who participate in the new Koch Institute program also could help bring new treatments and diagnostic technologies to India faster, says Vinod Raina, professor of medical oncology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, and a member of the committee that will select the new fellows. “After the communications and wireless revolution in the last 10 years, India is now at the threshold of a biotechnology revolution,” he says.

There is a particularly urgent need for more research into the types of cancer most common in India, including head and neck cancer (often the result of tobacco use) and cervical cancer, which are not as prevalent in the West, says Raina.

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