Inspiring Scientists Making a Difference: Pratik Vikhe

Developing assays for identifying biomarkers in infectious diseases and immuno-oncology research

“You have to put the pieces together, look at the whole picture, and try to figure out the next steps.”

Pratik Vikhe, PhD

Scientist and Immunology Lead, Center for Protein Degradation, Dana-Faber Cancer Institute

A lot of people are puzzled by the complexity of the human immune system, but for someone like Pratik that is the best part. Trying to find the answer to the questions derived from the data and literature. Inspired by his natural curiosity and great teachers along the way, Pratik is a renowned Immunologist working on advancing science in immunology whether it is cancer research or infection diseases. His focus is on patient focused translational research. However, one day he dreams of solving a fundamental question in cellular or molecular immunology.

“You have to put the pieces together, look at the whole picture, and try to figure out the next steps.”
Pratik Vikhe

Pratik has seen modest medical facilities in his village in India and worked on most advanced technologies during his academic and professional career. He believes that science can have a global impact when there is universal access to scientific knowledge and discoveries. Looking at neutrophils engulfing pathogens under the light microscope was one of the coolest moments for Pratik. That is when he decided to pursue a career in immunology, and limited resources could not stop him from his path.

Due to advances in genomics and proteomics, it is well known that certain proteins based on genetic traits are responsible for a particular disease or condition. Pratik’s research goal is to target some of these un-targetable proteins for the purpose of rescuing the phenotype or a disease. His role is to support assay development for these protein targets to study immunological aspects such as inflammatory response, infectious disease, autoimmunity, and immuno-oncology. What is unique about his research is that most of the time he works on invalidating the target biomarker as opposed to validating it as is the case in most commercial translational organizations. Scientific literature drives the choice of biomarker, and if the invalidation does not work means that the target is good for further studies.

He uses variety of techniques and instruments in the laboratory for his research including cytokine and chemokine profiling. Since his work involved invalidating the targets, they must wade through large number of biomarkers. One experimental setup, he feels, comes in handy is the Invitrogen ProQuantum High Sensitivity Immunoassays. Using this immunoassay, Pratik had developed a high-throughput screening which he considers to be one of the best method in his arsenal. Its single step protocol allows him to screen up to 300 biomarkers at once within a short period of time with very high sensitivity. He also thinks that the speed with which research technologies are being developed has enabled scientists to perform high-efficiency research with greater reliability and consistency. For one specific research project Pratik had to screen about several hundred compounds for a specific analyte. This was a huge task and managing the data generated from such a large screening process was touch. Analyzing 300 samples per assay was not easy, but ProQuantum makes it possible with its high-throughput mode. In Pratik's experience it can shrunk the timeline of high-throughput screens from a couple of months to a couple of weeks.

“If you are not on top of the new information, you lag behind.”

Immunology research is developing rapidly with new discoveries and the amount of data generated can be intimidating. For a scientist it is difficult but essential to cope with this speed to avoid duplicate work or spending time on something that is already proven. One of the major challenges in his work is the limited tools for gene editing in human primary cells such especially innate immune cells. He hopes that researchers in chemical biology or cellular and molecular biology can produce potential solutions for this soon.

Pratik likes to plan out his weeks due to the nature of research. He starts his days with browsing through recent publications, preparing for meetings and plans to set up the assays in-between. However, he likes to set aside specific time slots for looking at cell populations using flow cytometry, ProQuantum and other techniques. Evening hours are utilized for data analysis. Juggling between various tasks while managing multiple assays can be challenging sometimes, but Pratik likes all that comes with the job. Having reliable instruments give him one less thing to worry about and allows him to focus on core functions without having to worry about quality of the data.

Use of immune mechanisms against cancer is one of the biggest breakthroughs in last two decades according to Pratik. More recently, COVID-19 vaccine is a key breakthrough, though more research is needed in this area. As far as next quarter century, he thinks that there is a lot of investment being made in immunology generating large amounts of data. There is a need for a good solution to process this kind of data efficiently. Artificial intelligence could be a key to analyzing the data to understand the big picture.

Though Pratik is a traditionally trained immunologist, his initial work involved host-microbe interactions. He never thought he would end up studying chemical modulators in immunology, but this has enlightened him to the immense possibilities. Typically, an experiment is meant to answer a certain question, but Pratik is motivated by the many questions generated after an experiment. In a broader sense, supporting development of a treatment for any disease that could help a patient is both his goal and a motivator.

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