Steel engineer shifts focus to research on ovarian tumors

Ashutosh Kumar, a materials engineer with a classical background, has always had a zeal for creating things. His expertise in steel design and the analysis of stress fractures in alloys has paved the way for his journey.

While pursuing his education, Kumar found a fascination with biology and medicine. Upon acceptance into the metallurgical engineering and materials science program at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, he was overjoyed yet slightly discontent due to the absence of biology studies.

Currently enrolled as a PhD candidate and a MathWorks Fellow at MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Kumar skillfully combines his diverse passions. His research delves into certain bacteria’s impact on ovarian cancer progression, potentially reducing the efficacy of chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

“Certain microbes exhibit a propensity to infect ovarian cancer cells, leading to changes in cellular characteristics and the adaptation of cells to stressful conditions,” explains Kumar. “This transformative behavior enables cell migration to various sites, potentially resulting in chemoresistance development. Our focus is on exploring therapeutic interventions to counteract these changes.”

With an interdisciplinary approach encompassing microbiology, bioengineering, artificial intelligence, big data, and materials science, Kumar aspires to unravel the microbiome’s connection to adverse patient outcomes. His ultimate objective is to engineer bacteriophage viruses for therapeutic bacterial reprogramming.

Transitioning towards health sciences early in his bachelor’s program at IIT Bombay, Kumar discovered the versatility of engineering. This realization steered him towards biomaterial research, melding his academic pursuits and personal interests.

His passion for the field motivated him to pursue graduate studies. Beginning his doctoral journey at MIT presented Kumar with a remarkable opportunity to engage in cross-disciplinary work, such as that typical of MIT.

Reflecting on his collaboration with Angela Belcher, the James Mason Crafts Professor of biological engineering and materials science, Kumar recalls their initial discussions on the microbiome’s impact on ovarian cancer upon his arrival at MIT.

“Expressing my enthusiasm for human health and biology, we brainstormed ideas,” states Kumar. “Recognizing the critical need for understanding gynecological cancers, especially the aggressive nature of ovarian cancer, propelled our research endeavors.”

In recognition of his academic prowess, Kumar was honored with a MathWorks Fellowship in 2022. These fellowships target graduate students at the School of Engineering, particularly those utilizing MATLAB or Simulink in their research – software devised by MathWorks. The philanthropic backing catalyzed Kumar’s complete transition into health science studies.

“Our research initially lacked conventional funding sources, and the MathWorks Fellowship endowed us with the necessary flexibility to venture into this realm,” remarks Kumar. “It facilitated skill acquisition and inquisitiveness in this domain, enabling me to navigate from a steel engineer to a cancer researcher.”

Kumar’s investigation into the interplay between bacteria and ovarian cancer commenced with analyzing bacteria integration in tumor models using mice.

“Close examination of cell structure alterations and their impact on cancer advancement guided our research path,” describes Kumar, highlighting the powerful role of MATLAB image processing in tracking tumor metastasis alongside collaborators.

Utilizing RNA sequencing and MATLAB algorithms, the team constructs a bacterial taxonomy to unravel microbiome variations in tandem with cancer progression.

“Upon identification of microbiome compositions, our objective is to monitor microbiome alterations during cancer advancement, particularly in patients developing chemoresistance,” Kumar elaborates.

Promising discoveries hinting at ovarian cancer originating in the fallopian tubes fuel optimism, suggesting early intervention before ovarian involvement could enhance prognoses.

Grateful for Belcher’s unwavering support and mentorship, Kumar acknowledges her pivotal role in steering his research endeavors.

“Her confidence in my potential to contribute to this project, despite my materials engineering background, has been remarkable,” Kumar expresses. “Her eagerness to tackle novel challenges has empowered me to delve into this concept, setting a solid foundation for progress.”

Reciprocating Kumar’s sentiments, Belcher acknowledges the transformative collaboration on the ovarian cancer microbiome project.

“Collaborating with Ashutosh on this project has been truly enriching,” she says. “His dedication and enthusiasm in exploring unconventional strategies to combat this debilitating disease are commendable. His innovative insights into early microenvironmental changes in the disease’s trajectory could prove vital in interception and prevention. Given the project’s nascent data, his MathWorks fellowship played a pivotal role in its inception.”

A proponent of active involvement in student governance and community initiatives, Kumar emphasizes creating inclusive learning environments to foster holistic student development outside academics. Balancing commitments with personal engagement aids him in maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

“Science is perpetual, leaving no room for interruptions, but carving out moments for mental rejuvenation is essential,” Kumar asserts. “Scheduled breaks and community interactions during campus events provide a needed respite, delineating boundaries between work and leisure.”

Reflecting on his unconventional path from materials science to cancer research, Kumar sees it as an organic progression shaped by life’s dynamic nature.

“Life’s trajectory is fluid,” Kumar observes. “Our envisioned path often diverges from the ultimate course. Five years ago, I couldn’t have foreseen my current position at MIT, surrounded by exceptional mentors in the scientific realm.”

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