Biotechnologist Prajakta Dandekar is on the cutting edge of a new technology that could revolutionise the pharmaceutical industry.
Lush gardens filled with tropical plants and meandering paths surround the buildings of the Institute of Chemical Technology in Matunga, Mumbai. The inside of Prajakta Dandekar’s lab presents a stark contrast, with machines for the culturing and analysis of cells crammed in every corner, gleaming white surfaces, and shelves bursting with flasks and vials.
“We end up spending more time in the lab than in the house,” says Prajakta, a 35-year-old professor at the institute, who is doing some of the most interesting work in biotechnology today. Here, along with her team of students, Prajakta works on culturing human and other mammalian cells for drug experimentation, using a method that reduces the pharmaceutical industry’s reliance on animal testing and is more accurate than traditional ways of testing cell cultures.
Only a handful of scientists around the world work on this aspect of biotechnology, which involves growing three-dimensional arrangements of cells on a tiny “chip”, fed by fluidic channels that simulate the flow and exchange of nutrients in the body. Prajakta’s husband, also a professor at ICT, focuses on the application of trial drugs to the different cells cultures, such as skin, lung, or gut. Her own emphasis is on developing the chip’s underlying structure, particularly exploring the use of biodegradable materials such as chitosan, a biopolymer derived from crustacean shells, to create a scaffold for the cells.
For Prajakta, who has received several awards and fellowships for her work, this area of research was a way to bring together her training in pharmaceutics with her graduate work in bioprocess technology. Prajakta had lots of doctors in her family, and originally wanted to be one too, but pharmaceutics threw up a different insight. Prajakta realised that greater ethical concerns about animal testing were exerting real pressure on the development of new medicines, and that the drug industry needed new ways to test their products. Though she didn’t become a clinician, Prajakta points out that “whatever we’re developing is ultimately for the patient.”
As a graduate of the ICT herself, Prajakta has always felt at home in science, but concedes that there is room for improvement when it comes to the ratio of men and women. “In the basic sciences, there are more women,” she tells us, “but in technology and engineering areas, the percentage drops. In my field, I wouldn’t say it’s pathetic, but it’s not good.”
“Right now the policymaking is more male dominated,” she says, “If it starts from the level of education, eventually you would have more women policymakers in top positions, such as directors of institutes.” Prajakta counts herself lucky to have her husband on the same campus, and parents nearby to keep an eye on her two-year-old daughter, but believes that more women at the forefront of her field and its affiliated industries would only be an advantage.
This article is part of a series of stories written by freelance journalist and editor Sonal Shah and photographed by Abhinandita Mathur on the occasion of this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8.