Bio-entrepreneur Dr Subhadra Dravida is inspired by Paulo Coelho. Her favourite line is from The Alchemist “When you seek something, all the Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” Says the scientist and owner of healthcare startup Transcell Oncologics, “Since the news of the virus erupted in March 2020, I had been thinking on these lines. And in three months it happened. If everything goes well, our solution will actually get implemented in a month or two in India.” The Universe did step in and Dravida is the new medical star whose breakthrough research on a novel stem cell treatment holds promise for Covid patients.
In India, a young girl doesn’t need a specific trigger to turn to research, seeking a solution to end mankind’s trials—it is all-pervasive. Since her teens, this desire has driven Dravida’s research. “I’ve always strongly felt that I’m born to shield humans from suffering,” she says, rather dramatically. An entrepreneurial technocrat who has worked in the US, Canada and India in stem cell research, biobanking and product development, Dravida’s Hyderabad-based biotech startup was incubated at ASPIRE-Technology Business Incubator, University of Hyderabad. A week ago, the university announced that Dravida’s research on human umbilical cord (UC) tissue has yielded a stem cell-based solution to successfully treat coronavirus patients.
Researcher to entrepreneur, what prompted the transition? Dravida had to wait for almost eight months for her hypothesis to be practical. An entrepreneur at the helm of decision making would have cleared such bottlenecks. Over time, Dravida acquired many patents to her credit which she desired to translate into Apps. She moved back to Hyderabad and established her own startup in 2011. This Nizam College, Hyderabad, alumna, who was listed in Forbes magazine’s 2019 W-Power Trailblazers list, says that the HEMATO UC-MSCs she evolved do not cause adverse effects, are easy to administer and are proven to be safe for human application. It will not damage organs.
How did a stem cell researcher find a treatment for Covid-19? “During some academic discussions with doctors in Hyderabad this year, I was asked for an alternative after anti-viral medication and steroids options were exhausted. I realised that I can work on existing solutions with coronavirus-specific data and find a workable solution,” says Dravida, whose experience working at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and the LV Prasad Eye Institute, Hyderabad, shaped the research. She is certain that the HEMATO UC-MSCs therapy is the new way to cure Covid-19 patients in real time, not just by treating their symptoms alone.
“If HEMATO UC-MSCs are administered as the first line of treatment followed by steps to alleviate the symptoms in a traditional manner, coronavirus deaths can be avoided,” she believes. HEMATO UC-MSCs can be delivered across India within 48 hours. They have been specially treated for storage under 2-8 degrees centigrade refrigerated conditions, but have to be used within 72 hours.
Dravida’s team comprised, apart from herself, two junior colleagues, a fellow scientist and a ‘marketing evangelist’. She recalls conducting innumerable meetings with social distancing and Zoom calls to create a workable model. “A colleague’s mom barely in her 50s was admitted to hospital for emergency Covid treatment. I heard horror stories about the hospital rationing her oxygen supply. I prayed fervently that our solution would see the light of the day sooner to prevent more loss of life,” she says. When Dravida is not poring over scientific journals, she loves to visit monasteries and gaze up at the night sky. Perhaps, the Universe has its ear cocked for this alchemist of life.
Understanding Mesenchymal Stem Cells
Stem cells provide new cells for the body and replace those that are damaged or lost. They can divide repeatedly to produce new cells. As they divide, they can also change into the other types of cells that make up the body. Stem cells originate from two main sources: adult body tissues and embryos. Scientists are working on ways to develop stem cells from other cells, using genetic “reprogramming” techniques. Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) are multipotent stem cells found in the bone marrow that are important for making and repairing skeletal tissues, such as cartilage, bone and the fat found in the bone marrow.