Professor Umesh C. Chaturvedi is currently a Scientific Consultant with Indian Council of Medical Research, Department of Health Research, Ministry of Health of Government of India. His present mission is to offer help to the Indian Council of Medical Research for establishing Virology Network Laboratories all over the country to provide earlier and advanced diagnostics for viral infections.
Professor Chaturvedi is an alumnus of King George Medical College, Lucknow. He had both graduate and postgraduate education in Medicine there specializing in Pathology and Microbiology. Later he joined the Faculty of the Department of Pathology and Microbiology in the same college and successfully established a facility for diagnostic virology and research.
Chaturvedi's tremendous interest in experimental studies related to the pathogenesis of Dengue hemorrhagic fever and Japanese encephalitis viruses and relentless pursuit in understanding pathogenic mechanisms in these diseases led to seminal discoveries and more than 250 publications in international and national peer reviewed journals including Nature. His work has been cited in Topley & Wilson's Text book and in Fields' Virology. He has received several awards including S.S. Bhatnagar Award (1981), OP Bhasin Award (1991), National Institute of Immunology Senior Scientist Award (1990), BK Aikat Oration Award by Indian Association of Pathologists and Microbiologists (1989), Shakuntala Amir Chand Prize (1969) and JB Srivastava Award (1979). He is also a Fellow of Royal College of Pathology and an elected Fellow of all the science academies in the country.
During a recent visit to Thiruvananthapuram in connection with setting up one of such laboratories at Rajiv Gandhi Center for Biotechnology at Thiruvananthapuram MS. Suja, a scientist at the Center spoke to him about his career, research and views on tackling emerging and re emerging infections in the country.
What triggered a medical person like you, who is well trained in pathology and microbiology, to transit into viral research and eventually become successful in starting a viral laboratory? What inspired you to shift to viral research even though malaria & tuberculosis were important fields of study during the period when you graduated? What were the obstacles in establishing a viral laboratory and how did you overcome them?
I had been drifting. Being admitted on merit at K G Medical College, Lucknow, the natural choice was General Medicine. I worked in Medicine for three months but then I realized that it was not for me because there was no challenge. At that time it was possible to change one’s field of study, because meritorious students had a choice about where they wanted to go. I decided to join Pathology because I was fascinated with the work of my professor, R M L Mehrotra, who was an Experimental Pathologist. I wanted to be a researcher and so I started working with him in Experimental Pathology, doing various operations in experimental animals. By the time I had established in Experimental Pathology, Dr. Mehrotra considered setting up a virus laboratory in K G Medical College and he asked me to take up Virology. Experimental pathology had been very exciting for me but I could not refuse him due to the affection and respect I had for Prof. Mehrotra. I took up the challenge and we established a virus laboratory at Lucknow. Luckily I could do very well in Virology. We had an epidemic of Dengue in 1968 and we investigated it single handedly (without any aid from the National Institute of Virology, Pune, which is the National Virus Research Centre). We isolated Dengue virus from patients and typed it which was a great achievement in those days. Establishing a virus laboratory was the result of painstaking effort because of scarce and expensive resources. My first research grant was Rs.10, 000, (in year 1967) but it was insufficient for my research needs. It was a real challenge to run a virus laboratory once the epidemic was over. The diagnostic facility was too limited as we had exhausted the available kits. The old techniques were very cumbersome. By the time diagnosis was made the patient would have left the hospital or sometimes the world. Our work had more of a clinical or academic interest rather than concern about the immediate benefits to the patient. Now the scenario has altered completely. With the advent of rapid techniques and modified kits, diagnosis is given to the concerned person the same day or the next day. The Laboratory being located in a Medical College, I had to look into subjects of thesis for MD/PhD students. Therefore, I started doing experimental pathology in Virology. Dengue experience being fresh, I started looking for the mechanisms of immune suppression in viral infection with special reference to Dengue virus. That was the starting point of my long and fruitful career in Virology.
Amongst your 260 publications which one is your favorite and why?
It is difficult to single out one paper. I can list out three, because they changed the direction of my life and the course of my work. The first paper, published in NATURE in 1967, critically established the role of T cells in the damage of the heart, in experimental animals. That was the starting point of my work in relation to the heart, often referred as autoimmune phenomena or immunological injury. I received the first award of my life, the Shakuntala Amir Chand Prize by ICMR for it, and it was followed by several publications. Later we approached the patients, trying to ascertain the presence of anti cardiac antibodies in patients with myocardial infarction, to find out the varying types of these antibodies, and to look for T cells. We showed for the first time that T cells are responsible for cardiac damage, resulting from post-myocardial infarction and post-pericardiotomy syndrome. The Nature paper was of prime significance as it led to a series of original research and I could prove my theory it in clinical conditions as well. My second major paper was published in Journal of General Virology in 1977. That initiated our study on the mechanism of immunosuppression in Dengue virus infection. This led to the discovery of Dengue virus specific Suppressor T Cells. For the first time suppressor T cells for a live antigen was demonstrated, for which I received the S.S. Bhatnagar Prize by CSIR in 1981. Eventually our work on Dengue led to the discovery of (i) a unique cytokine, Cytotoxic Factor, (ii) helper T cell type 2 response and (iii) cytokine tsunami - responsible for plasma leakage leading to Dengue hemorrhage fever. My interest with Dengue still continues. Nineteen of my students did their Ph.D work on Dengue and most of them received national research awards. My third prime paper was on transplacental transmission of Japanese Encephalitis virus in a human patient, published in the Journal of Infectious Disease (1980). It became a classical paper, and has been abstracted in several text books of Virology including Fields’ Virology. My former student and colleague, Professor Asha Mathur carried this work to greater heights and won laurels. This led to the work on a mouse model and a demonstration of the persistence of Japanese Encephalitis virus. My colleagues, students and myself working in my small laboratory, located within a Medical College, received about 34 recognitions for our research, in the form of awards and fellowships of foremost scientific bodies.
It is unfortunate that even though India excels in various areas of research such as Nuclear Science, Space, Agriculture etc, we still lag in biomedical science research. Are we not doing enough? What strategies should we adopt in order to overcome this situation?
There are several key factors. When a student selects biology to achieve a basic degree, his foremost ambition is to gain admission in a medical college. Eventually, outstanding students manage to gain medical education. The second best attempts competitive examinations in Civil Service or join the private sector. Those students who are left behind specializes in basic science, pursue PhD and later linger around as post doctoral fellows. Some of them, who have real passion for research decide upon research as their first choice and excel, but not others. Our socialistic structure has changed drastically. The society has always respected teachers though the latter were in perpetual penury. Today the criterion for respect in a society is money; those who possess money are respected. The profession which yields money is the most revered one. So the best talents pursuing different specialties in medical colleges do not opt for research. In the field of medicine in earlier days, the best students considered either medicine or surgery as their first choice; their second choice would be Pediatrics. The ladies mostly preferred Gynecology. Those at the bottom of the rank list would prefer Radiology, Microbiology, Anatomy and Physiology and so on. Today the circumstances have changed noticeably. Why does an outstanding student desire to specialize in Radiology? The motivation would be that a single MRI could fetch him more than Rs 5000. There are still a few crazy fellows, like me (I call myself a mad person). I was one of the poorest persons in KG Medical College because I did not take up medical practice due to lack of time. I was preoccupied and confined to my lab. I would say that the research that we see happening around has occurred owing to a few crazy fellows like me. The socialistic structure of our society has changed noticeably and today we respect money instead of knowledge. In my opinion, that is the prime reason for the lack of quality research in bioscience. It is to be noted that the amount of money available for research today was never there before. In spite of that, we are not advancing much in research, since the academic quality of the aspirants who come forward for research is quite low and not many are dedicated and enthusiastic. That is the core problem. “You can bring a horse to the water but you cannot make him drink”. So much money being available elsewhere dissuades the best of the talents from doing basic research.