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From steel technology to ovarian tumor research

Ashutosh Kumar is a classically trained materials engineer. Having grown up with a passion for making things, he has studied steel design and studied stress fractures in alloys.

However, over the course of his education, Kumar also became desirous about biology and medicine. When he was accepted right into a bachelor's program in metallurgical engineering and materials science on the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Bombay, the Jamshedpur native was very excited – and “somewhat dissatisfied because I couldn't do biology anymore.”

Now a PhD student and a MathWorks Fellow Kumar can mix his diverse interests within the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT. He studies the results of certain bacteria which were observed to advertise the spread of ovarian cancer and potentially reduce the effectiveness of chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

“Some microbes are inclined to infect ovarian cancer cells, which might result in changes in cell structure and reprogramming of cells to survive under stressful conditions,” says Kumar. “This signifies that cells can migrate to different locations and could have a mechanism to develop chemoresistance. This opens up the potential for developing therapies to see if we will begin to reverse a few of these changes.”

Kumar's research combines microbiology, bioengineering, artificial intelligence, big data and materials science. Using microbiome sequencing and AI, he goals to define microbiome changes that will correlate with poor patient outcomes. Ultimately, his goal is to govern bacteriophage viruses to reprogram bacteria to have a therapeutic effect.

Just a number of months after completing his bachelor's degree at IIT Bombay, Kumar began pursuing work in health sciences.

“I spotted that engineering is so flexible that it will probably be applied to any field,” he says, adding that he began working with biomaterials “to suit each my major and my interests. “

“I liked it a lot that I made a decision to pursue graduate studies,” he adds.

Starting his doctoral program at MIT, he says, “was a unbelievable opportunity to modify gears and work on more interdisciplinary or MIT-like work.”

Kumar says he and Angela Belcher, the James Mason Crafts Professor of Bioengineering and Materials Science, began discussing the microbiome's impact on ovarian cancer when he first arrived at MIT.

“I shared my passion for human health and biology and we began brainstorming,” he says. “We recognized that there may be an unmet need to grasp many gynecological cancers. Ovarian cancer is an aggressive cancer that will likely be diagnosed too late and has already spread.”

In 2022, Kumar received a MathWorks scholarship. The scholarships are awarded to graduate students of the School of Engineering, preferably those that use MATLAB or Simulink of their research, developed by the mathematical computer software company MathWorks. The philanthropic support supported Kumar's full transition into health sciences research.

“The work we’re doing now was not originally funded from traditional sources, and the MathWorks Fellowship gave us the pliability to pursue this area,” says Kumar. “It gave me the chance to learn latest skills and ask questions on the topic. MathWorks gave me the chance to explore my interests and helped me transition from steel engineer to cancer researcher.”

Kumar's work on the connection between bacteria and ovarian cancer began with studying which bacteria are incorporated into tumors in mouse models.

“We began to closely examine changes in cell structure and the way these changes affect cancer progression,” he says, adding that MATLAB image processing helps him and his collaborators track tumor metastases.

The research team also uses RNA sequencing and MATLAB algorithms to create a taxonomy of the bacteria.

“Once we discover the composition of the microbiome,” says Kumar, “we would like to see how the microbiome changes as cancer progresses and discover changes, for instance, in patients who develop chemoresistance.”

He says recent findings that ovarian cancer may originate within the fallopian tubes are promising because detecting cancer-related biomarkers or lesions before the cancer spreads to the ovaries could lead on to higher prognoses.

As he continues his research, Kumar says he is amazingly grateful to Belcher “for believing in me to work on this project.”

“She trusted me and my passion for making a difference in human health – though I even have a background in materials engineering – and supported me throughout. It was her passion for taking up latest challenges that allowed me to work on this concept. She was a fantastic mentor and motivated me to maintain moving forward.”

Belcher, for her part, is equally thrilled.

“It was great to work with Ashutosh on this ovarian cancer microbiome project,” she says. “He was so passionate and committed to finding less conventional approaches to solving this debilitating disease.” His innovations find very early changes within the microenvironment of this disease might be crucial in detecting and stopping ovarian cancer. We began this project with little or no preliminary data, so his MathWorks grant was critical in initiating the project.”

Kumar, who could be very energetic in student governance and community constructing, believes that it is extremely essential for college kids to feel included and at home at their institutions in order that they’ll thrive outside of the educational world. He says his own commitment helps him take a break from work.

“Science can never stop, and there’ll all the time be something to do,” he says, explaining that he consciously schedules downtime and social engagement helps him experience downtime. “Connecting with community members through on-campus or dorm events helps set a mental boundary with work.”

Kumar views his unusual journey from materials science to cancer research as something that happened organically.

“I even have observed that life could be very dynamic,” he says. “What we predict we do and what we find yourself doing are never consistent. Five years ago, I’d never have imagined that I could be working with such outstanding scientific mentors around me at MIT.”


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