With more than 100 speakers representing 17 nations and over 700 delegates from across the globe, the 9th NGBT (Nextgen Genomics, Biology, Bioinformatics and Technologies) Conference in Mumbai witnessed keynote addresses, scientific sessions and poster presentations focussed on the cutting-edge medical science.
The conference, organized and hosted by SGRF (SciGenome Research Foundation), seeks to bring the highest levels of medical research to clinicians and others interested in biological science.
“Over the past nine years, NGBT has evolved to create a forum for researchers, students, clinicians, plant and animal scientists, technology and biology companies from India and across the globe to meet, share and gain knowledge on advances in science and technology. The science of genomics is revolutionizing healthcare, drug discovery, plant and animal sciences. Our conference is intended to bring these cutting-edge advances accessible to scientists and aspiring students in India,” said Dr Sekar Seshagiri, NGBT Conference Chair and SGRF President.
Among the delegates and speakers attending the conference were luminaries of medical and biological research, including Dr Gagandeep Kang — the only Indian woman scientist to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, UK. Addressing a media session on the opening day of the NGBT conference, Dr Kang regretted the Indian tendency to focus on quantity rather than quality in research. But she also said meetings like this (the NGBT conference) were useful as they provided inspiration to young people from small towns with the potential to become the scientists of the future.
Earlier in the day, Dr Kang, who is associated with the Translational Health Science and Technological Institute, Faridabad, spoke on Controlled Human Infection Model (CHIM) for vaccine development. These are trials that purposely infect human volunteers with infectious agents and use their serum and body fluids for the development of vaccines for those ailments. She, however, emphasized that there were unique ethical, safety and scientific challenges associated with CHIM studies. Hence robust governance and regulatory mechanisms were essential for the CHIM approach to move into widespread application, she added.
Other technical presentations and discussions that formed part of the three-day conference were spread over a wide range of topics, from genetic variations in different medical conditions to plant breeding techniques, and even the impact of the air quality on the genomic structure (and expression).
Dr Kavita Venkataraman from the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, National University of Singapore, pointed out in her talk that HbA1c has long been a monitoring tool for diabetes mellitus for several reasons. One, it is a pointer to which patients might develop adverse complications (such as acute myocardial infarction, cerebrovascular disease, end-stage renal Disease, etc.). Second, there might also be an association between variations in HbA1c patterns and genetic susceptibility to insulin deficiency and insulin resistance, she added. This goes a long way in understanding why some people are able to live reasonably normal lives despite having diabetes mellitus for many years, while other patients quickly progress to kidney failure or severe peripheral neuropathy.
One of the highlights of the first day of the conference was the talk delivered by Dr Hilary Martin from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, UK. It focused on quantifying genetic architecture in over 10,000 exome-sequenced patients of developmental disorders. She and her colleagues had conducted an exome-wide burden analysis to estimate the contribution of autosomal recessive and X-linked coding variants in patients of developmental disorders. The proportion of cases with autosomal coding variants was relatively lower at 3.6 percent in European ancestry patients, while it was much higher (31 percent) in patients of Pakistani origin. She explained this by saying it was on account of autozygosity resulting from marriages between close relatives within families.
As a part of his talk about “Mapping genetic and environmental origins of disease traits to molecular mechanisms”, Dr Stephen W Michnick (Department of Biochemistry, University of Montreal, Canada, explained the influence of variations in genome sequences in individual persons. He pointed out that these variations could be the answer to why the response to a given drug could vary from person to person. Reversing this logic, Dr Michnick proposed that these variations could help to identify the receptors to particular drugs present in each individual and thus determine which drug might be most suitable to which patient. Though he did not use the term “personalized medicine”, his concept was obviously a significant contribution in that direction.
Touching upon a topic of great contemporary interest in the biosciences community, Dr Deepti Deobagkar, ISRO Chair, Savitrabai Phule University, Pune, explained the importance of epigenetic factors in human cells. She said that metastatic cells often display a loss of chromosome balance with translocations, chromosomal instability and aneuploidy (an abnormal number of chromosomes in a haploid set). “Aneuploidy in early embryonic development often leads to major developmental and structural abnormalities, which could even result in death of the embryo,” she added.
The conference also discussed topics such as structural analysis of the activation of B-Raf kinase for development of new cancer drugs, characterisation of South Asian genomes to decipher genome and population structure and improving the effectiveness of disease association studies, regulatory levels in control of DC function and induction of specific immunity and bacterial infection and unconventional serine ubiquitination.