Her research journey is with a mission – to find a better anticancer drug with fewer side effects – started right from an undergraduate degree. Dr Nusrat Sanghamitra was inspired by the idea of finding a better drug for cancer in her own naïve and often unconventional way. “There were two reasons: I was greedy of making wider impact, so I wanted to make a better cancer drug and chose Chemistry and the second reason was I found chemistry fascinating because you can do things and visualise the result (e.g colour change in acid base reactions etc as opposed to abstract assumptions in physics and mathematics),” says Dr Nusrat. She was awarded at the She Loves Tech Global Startup Competition 2019, in Beijing, for her innovation in anti-cancer drug delivery.
To translate her ideas and research – cell biology and its applications in anticancer drug development – Dr Nusrat founded CyCa OncoSolutions. The molecular drilling device can inject directly and precisely anti-cancer drugs into the affected cells.
In the lab, they have a longstanding interest in harnessing new technology to probe protein function. “We are developing efficient, non toxic in vitro and in vivo delivery systems especially for cancer therapeutics. The vision is to make cancer drugs better and safer. It is based on an engineered protein USG that works like a molecular nanomachine. As USG is to the cell what a USB is to any computer, to transform molecular information. It crosses the living cell membrane as smoothly as you cross automatic doors with your luggage and carries drugs into the living cell efficiently without damaging the cells. By making new formulations of USG and known cancer drugs we aim to reduce the side effects of cancer drugs, take cancer from mortal to manageable, radically improving the quality of life of 15 million cancer patients worldwide,” explains an elated Dr Nusrat, who is positive of eradicating the painful side effects and thus improving the quality of life of cancer patients.
As a researcher and scientist, her primary focus was to lower the toxicity and dosage right from her PhD days. "I started by synthesizing new water soluble copper complexes as an alternative to cisplatin, the most widely used anticancer metallodrug. Those complexes killed cancer cells but the most active of those was also highly toxic. So I shifted my research field to from chemistry to protein engineering to biophysics and cell biology. The key breakthrough came when out of serendipity I discovered a new function of an engineered protein that works like a molecular nanomachine and carries molecular cargoes across the living cell membrane," she says.
Currently the Odisha-based research and technology startup, CyCa OncoSolutions is being accelerated at RebelBio accelerator programme run by SOSV, Cork, Ireland. “This technology can also sharply bring down the economic and social cost of managing cancer, which especially is a major issue with public healthcare systems the world over,” says Dr Nusrat.
While she was doing PhD, her father was diagnosed with cancer and is still under medication. This whole experience has kept her going so far and also provided her with a mission to accomplish. “The most interesting part was when I observed our protein entering into the cells by interaction with the membrane directly. That was absolutely fascinating. And when we observed that this molecule goes inside other cells such as bacteria, yeast and plant cells especially drug resistant bacteria, that were indeed very interesting,” says Dr Nusrat, whose day at the lab starts with discussion with team members. “Instructing them on their daily and weekly target, where we have fallen short, if they have faced any problem (technical or logistics) how to solve those and I make sure to spend some time of the day on discussing how we can improve our science, make our technology more efficient. Sometimes I go and check what experiments they have done in their desk, what data has been obtained,” says Dr Nusrat, who likes reading and writing poetries other than her work. “I love climbing mountains and long walking in dense forests and recently painting. My other passion is volunteering especially to work for refugee kids from war affected countries, to do something for them so that they can be healed from the emotional trauma that have undergone.”