Vishnu Mohan is in his last year of doctoral studies in the lab of Prof. Irit Sagi of the Weizmann Institute’s Department of Biological Regulation; but it doesn’t take a PhD for one to recognize that Mohan’s research is leading him in a new direction in treating pancreatic cancer.
Mohan’s story, like the function of the pancreas, is quite complex. He was born in Alleppey, India; moved to Saudi Arabia at the age of 10 when his father, who was employed by the Norwegian company Jotun Paints, was relocated. Now he is studying in Israel of all places.
One might ask, how does that happen? In one word: open-mindedness. But it is a worldview that has evolved over the years. Prior to coming to Israel Mohan saw things through a very different lens.
“In those years had you told me I would be conducting research at an institute in Israel, on the other side of the proverbial fence, I wouldn’t have believed it. My perspective at the time was that of conflict. This is what you read in newspapers. What I’ve learned since is that conflict exists everywhere in today’s world. But science is a great balm on this wound. Science brings people together,” Mohan says.
The Government of Israel Scholarship for Short Term Research – an eight-month scholarship that gives students from friendly countries an opportunity to come to do short term research – paved the way toward Mohan’s studies at the Weizmann Institute. After he concluded his MSc studies, he moved to Bangalore where he studied German at the Goethe Institute. While there, one of his former mentors connected him with Dr. Nachum Vaisman of Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital. Vaisman was working on a project involving pre-diabetes and the UCP-2 mitochondrial protein, and Mohan wrote a proposal on this project and later his application paper for the Israeli Short Term Research scholarship. After sitting with a professional panel, Mohan beat out hundreds of other applicants, thus joining the labs of Drs. Nachum Vaisman and Tami Geiger. Mohan was approaching the end of his tenure when Chen Varol, the director of the Research Center for Digestive Tract and Livers Diseases at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center – a researcher who collaborates extensively with Mohan’s current mentor, Sagi – strongly suggested he explore the Weizmann Institute of Science before deciding on an institute for his PhD studies.
At Weizmann, he ‘fell in love’
Mohan had heard impressive things about the Weizmann Institute and its researchers, and he decided it would be worth the effort to at least check it out. “When I came to Weizmann and walked through those gates I fell in love. The campus is just amazing. It’s the first thing that attracts you. This line of beautiful banyan trees. I met a few professors and in the process I met Irit. She spoke to me and said right away: Yes, you should join us. I was taken aback for a second. I really thought about it and after reading about her work and research I kept getting engaged further and further until there was no way out. I had to do my PhD at Weizmann.”
In Mohan’s studies in Sagi’s lab, he has been researching matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) – a subset of enzymes that primarily break down the matrix in which our living cells are embedded. These enzymes are crucial to normal development from the embryonic stage up to old age, and thus they regulate the architecture of the body. In diseased conditions the body can lose control over these enzymes, causing them to become agents of disease progression.
Mohan and his colleagues in Sagi’s lab have been investigating how these proteinases are involved in disease progression, specifically in that of pancreatic cancer – and how they directly affect pro-tumorigenic processes such as angiogenesis – the formation of new blood vessels which, in the case of cancer, aid and abet tumor growth and metastasis. During the later process, tumor cells must metastasize – relocate from their primary site to the blood stream, travel to a new target and form a new colony there. To do so they require proteinases because these enzymes, especially MMPs, cut through the matrix. They clear the path for the tumor cells to move up and out. MMPs also have a complex signaling role often aiding these processes.
The researchers in Sagi’s lab hope to determine the degree to which these processes contribute to tumor growth and malignancy, and whether blocking proteinases can be used to limit tumor growth, progression and metastasis. They have developed monoclonal, highly specific, therapeutic antibodies that target specific proteinases. Using basic methods of target validation they will verify whether these antibodies can be used for therapeutic advantage, possibly in combination with other therapies.
This entire process is much more complex than just killing tumor cells. But complexity is something Mohan has never shied away from, professionally nor personally. It was his ambitious spirit that won the affection of his wife Anjana – also a scientist, currently at Tel Aviv University; she is also a Bharatanatyam classical Indian dancer. They met while obtaining their bachelor’s degrees at the St. Joseph’s College of Arts and Science, Bangalore, India. She too is researching cancer – breast cancer – and they collaborate on their work.
“We talk science at dinner, we talk science in the morning. There is science all over,” Mohan says. It is what gives him life – science and culture. “To me science and culture really go hand in hand and I’m happy I have someone to share this with.”
Science, Mohan believes, is also the solution to all conflicts: disease, life or even politics. “Can science contribute? Absolutely. I believe it and my boss believes it and her belief is instilled in me in a very strong way, because science can break down barriers.”