In conversation with Professor Samir Maji

Professor Samir Maji is a Professor at the Department of Biosciences and Bioengineering (BSBE) at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IIT Bombay). His research interests include studying mechanisms of protein misfolding, aggregation and amyloid formation associated with human neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Prions; understanding the role of amyloid hydrogels in tissue engineering, disease progression and drug delivery. He is also the Professor-in-charge of Sunita Sanghi Centre for Ageing and Neurodegenerative Diseases (SCAN) at IIT Bombay, focusing on advancing the understanding of ageing and neurodegeneration and developing solutions to address the challenges faced by the larger global population. Here are some excerpts from the conversation.

Q. Could you tell us about your research interests and your professional journey?

Prof. Samir K. Maji

It was during my PhD itself that I started on the journey towards understanding protein aggregation as a phenomenon with a wide range of effects on diseases and drug delivery systems. I was fascinated by protein aggregation and their association with a myriad of human diseases like Alzheimer's, Type-2 diabetes and many diseases. After my PhD, I decided to study this further and went on to study Alzheimer's disease at Harvard Medical School's neurology department. This love for the topic continued during my Postdoctoral stint at the University of California Los Angeles, where I worked on understanding peptide aggregates and studying their toxicity responsible for cell death and disease progression. With my growing interest in understanding protein aggregation and disease progression, I decided to work on protein aggregation associated with Parkinson's disease at the Salk Institute and later at ETH Zurich.

Q. Could you tell us about the research in your group?

Our goal at Protein Engineering & Neurobiology lab at IIT Bombay is to study amyloid formation by protein/peptides associated with human diseases, the toxicity of protein aggregations and their effect on disease progression and other native biological functions that these amyloids may be associated with. I am glad to say that we are the pioneer in understanding protein aggregation, amyloid formation etc. associated with cancer. We have been investigating the p53 amyloid formation and its association with human cancers. My research group is very interested in understanding the behaviour and mechanism of amyloid-based biomaterials to develop potential nanotechnological applications such as tissue engineering and drug delivery. WRCB supported us in this research. The first project was on functional amyloid-based hydrogels for drug delivery. We developed more than seven hydrogels under this project. We could show that this class of hydrogels have thixotropic properties, a fantastic property of the material, wherein the viscosity of these hydrogels changes with the time of stirring. We could trap the drug molecules in these hydrogels until they are to be released. That allows the slow release of drug molecules from the hydrogels at the time of drug delivery. There were a lot of possibilities and avenues to explore this further with various drugs and disease types. However, we wanted to focus on one drug molecule or hydrogel at that time and with that in mind, we wrote our next project proposal for developing novel amyloid-based hydrogels for the sustained release of insulin. Currently, a lot of patients in advanced stages of diabetes have to take one or sometimes even two insulin injections a day, which is uncomfortable for patients. Imagine how much their quality of life would improve if this could be brought down to once a week! That also makes it more likely that patients would adhere to their treatment plans - currently a major challenge in diabetes management. WRCB shared our vision and supported the next two projects to develop novel functional amyloid-based peptide hydrogels with a potential application as an injectable insulin delivery system to treat diabetes type II. These easy-to-manufacture peptides would provide a targeted, low-cost drug delivery system that will aid in the release of insulin in a controlled manner.

Q. We would like to know more about Parkinson’s disease and the interventions that your research group is working on developing. 

Parkinson's disease is a degenerative brain disorder that affects normal movement and causes resting tremors, stiffness, lack of balance and difficulty in coordination. Early detection is a challenge, as such symptoms are usually the first indicators of this disorder. Medical practitioners primarily assess these symptoms and decide on a treatment plan. However, there is no specific drug that can cure Parkinson's disease. Studies have shown that the accumulation of the protein α-synuclein has a strong connection with Parkinson's disease. The toxicity of these aggregates kills neuronal cells in the brain. These aggregates can also cross the blood-brain barrier entering the bloodstream in small
amounts - but they are difficult to detect at those concentrations. With the technology we developed, we can amplify the protein aggregates that have entered the bloodstream, making it easier to measure them and detect Parkinson's much earlier than ever and with higher accuracy. Our initial trials in collaboration with the KEM Hospital with a small cohort of patients have shown promising results. We are now gearing up towards large-scale clinical trials for this patented technology, and hope to bring this new disease-detection technology to patients soon.

Q. Could you tell us about SCAN?

The Sunita Sanghi Centre for Ageing and Neurodegenerative Diseases (SCAN) is established through the vision of Mr Sharad Sanghi to provide the right platform to understand neurodegenerative diseases and ageing, to create innovative interventions for their early detection and to develop assistive devices and relevant policies to make a larger impact on lives of millions of people around the world. IITB has provided a unique ecosystem where many researchers with expertise in various fields of engineering, cognitive studies, industrial design and policy studies are working together to address challenges associated with neurodegenerative diseases and ageing. 

Professor Maji received WRCB’s intramural funding support in 2015, 2018 and 2022 for the systematic development of novel amyloid-based hydrogels for the sustained release of insulin for the treatment of type II diabetes.

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