By Dr Giselle Roberts
Dr Hamsa Puthalakath is an associate professor using cell death to tackle sepsis.
HIS START I grew up in a village in India that had no running water, no electricity, nothing. If the world came to an end, it would take about a week for the news to reach us. It is still like that today. That isolation fuelled my interest in global politics and the world around me. I was the first member of my family to go to university. I started off doing a degree in agriculture because, at that time, it was easy to get a job as an agricultural officer. Before graduating, most students had lined up their first position. Unfortunately, the agricultural part of the degree didn’t lend itself well to technology or analysis, and I soon became more interested in statistics, economics and biochemistry. I made the switch to molecular genetics for my PhD. I moved to Australia in 1994, and worked as a postdoctoral fellow at Monash University and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute before moving to La Trobe in 2007.
HIS WORK I specialise in apoptosis, or programmed cell death. Most of the research in this area focuses on cancer – the cells that subvert apoptosis mutate, leading to the abnormal growth of tissue. Finding ways to induce cell death is critical to cancer research. In other diseases, like sepsis, we need to stop cells from dying. That’s what I’m working on.
Sepsis is the leading cause of death from infection. It happens when the body’s inflammatory response goes into overdrive. Stage one of sepsis is known as hyper inflammation, where blood vessels dilate and blood pressure drops, causing organ dysfunction, shock, multiple organ failure and death. Patients who make it to stage two experience immune paralysis, where their adaptive immune cells die. My lab is using CRISPR gene editing technology to identify the human receptor that leads to immune cell death. That discovery will allow us to make antibodies that stop immune cell death, and sepsis, in its tracks.
HIS INSPIRATION Science is like an extreme adventure. It’s a little on the edge – you never know when you are going to fall off the cliff, and you have to take risks. Scientists live with the fact that other people might be working on similar things, and you may get scooped. But the payoff is the opportunity to do something of real significance. Most people will know someone who has died from sepsis. I lost two aunts to the condition, and six to nine million people die from it every year. Can you imagine how gratifying it will be if I make a discovery that helps to make a difference to human health? It makes being a scientist worthwhile. We all have to follow our own path, our own passion in life, and science that leads to clinical translation is mine.