Indo-French Cooperation in Immunology: My Journey

Srini Kaveri

Life for any PhD student can be grueling and highly demanding. In the laboratory of Professor Donny Strosberg (in the center), it was no different.

It was the late 70s. We were about to finish our studies at the veterinary school in Bangalore, India. Most of our classmates were ready to don the white coat and start their professional careers as field veterinarians. But some of us were looking at the distant horizons. And at the far horizons, in the late 70s, some revolutions were unfolding in science. These revolutions were going to impact the field of health and medicine profoundly.

In the United States, Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer had shown how to cut DNA into fragments, rejoin them, and insert the new genes into Escherichia coli bacteria, the so-called genetic engineering a part of molecular biology. Around the same time in Cambridge (UK), George Kohler and Cesar Milstein had developed a method by which large amounts of monoclonal antibodies of a predefined specificity could be generated – the monoclonal antibody technology, in immunology.

Like most dreamy young people, I also wanted to change the world, and to do so, I thought it was crucial to be part of the revolutions that were unfolding. Excellent teachers at the veterinary school had genuinely initiated me to study the immune system. I was on the lookout for an appropriate atmosphere for pursuing further comprehension of immunology. Serendipitously France happened to me.

My colleague Girija at the Veterinary College pointed out a notice displayed on the board beside Dean’s office. Other than writing to international universities or newspapers, in those days, college notice boards were the only way of knowing the opportunities available for higher education. Internet was unheard of, no Google, no websites, no emails. If you missed the notice on the board, maybe you missed a crucial turn in your career. I applied for the French government scholarship, and I got a call for an interview in New Delhi. I remember Professor Malaviya of AIIMS was one of the examiners. My friends were intrigued by my preference for France over the United States or England for higher studies. Usually, those were the favored destinations for higher education among Indians.

Why France, they would ask.

I guess they were in line with the accepted notion about education in the west. On the other hand, I was fascinated by research in Immunology in France. I saw the opportunity in technological advancements in a wide range of disciplines. In addition to the vaccine against Rabies, French scientists were making landmark discoveries in Immunology. France is the country of Louis Pasteur. France is the country of Institut Pasteur where I was fortunate to do my doctoral work. 

After some initial struggle in France, I alighted in the laboratory of Professor Donny Strosberg, and it was worth the wait. Donny’s lab was the perfect place for me to realize my dream, at least the beginning of it. The laboratory had established a state-of-the-art approach for producing monoclonal antibodies. My thesis research project implicated generating monoclonal antibodies to study the beta-adrenergic receptors. Jean-Gerard Guillet was my true teacher. I learned the basics, the method, and all the nuances associated with it with his supervision. 

On the shoulders of Laurent Emorine, I had a hard time in the lab too.

Even before I completed my doctoral studies in France, I got the opportunity to collaborate with India, thanks to Professor Sharat Chandra of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Professor Chandra had visited the Paris laboratory before. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) extended support to Prof. Chandra, with which he planned a workshop on Hybridoma Technology at IISc -Bangalore in the September of 1985. I coordinated this 15-day Indo-French workshop along with a CNRS colleague Laurent Emorine.

Following a post-doctoral training of two and half years in southern California, I was recruited by CNRS as Chargé de Recherche 1er Classe, in the team of Professor Michel Kazatchkine. An exceptionally kind clinician, intelligent scientist, and remarkable human being, Michel Kazatchkine became the Head of the French National Agency for AIDS Research, the HIV/AIDS and communicable diseases global ambassador. He held other key positions in several international bodies related to health and medicine. Michel Kazatchkine strived hard towards the awareness and treatment of patients with AIDS in India.

As soon as I was made responsible for the INSERM research team dedicated to studying Immunopathology and Immunotherapy, I began exploring modes of collaboration with India. I engaged a large number of doctoral and post-doctoral students from all over India. Nagendra Prasad from Karnataka was the first Indian post-doc to work in my group. Since the last thirty-odd years, there has not been any spell where there are no Indians in my team. I explored different opportunities that the system offered to strengthen the cooperation with India.

Our team had a wide range of research interests. From basic immunology, immunochemistry, autoimmune & inflammatory diseases, cancer, hemophilia, and immunomodulation by medicinal plants to diverse immunotherapeutic strategies. This allowed us to explore collaboration with a wide range of research institutes and universities in India.

In early 1990, the government of India established the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas celebration, an occasion marked by special programs to recognize the contributions of NRI/PIO individuals among the Indian Diaspora. My team got selected for an Indo-French joint research project under Collaborative Project with Scientists and Technologists of Indian Origin Abroad Program (CP -STIO Project), framework an initiative of the Department of Science and Technology (DST). My research project involved Dr. Vir Singh Negi, Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education (JIPMER), Pondicherry. 

Transfer of Knowledge through Expatriate Nationals (TOKTEN), an initiative of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) of strengthened my interaction with India. It enabled me to visit several major CSIR institutions in December 1997 to discuss the implementation of some of the state-of-the-art technologies.

Indo-French Centre for the Promotion of Advanced Research (CEFIPRA) is another exceptionally efficient tool for facilitating Indo-French cooperation. With colleagues Prof V Nagaraja and Prof DN Rao at IISc, Bangalore, my team established a highly productive research program on the studies on catalytic antibodies in hemophilia. CEFIPRA also enabled us to organize an Indo-French workshop entitled ‘HOPE in RED’ (Host-Pathogen interaction in respiratory diseases) in particular, tuberculosis. 

Meanwhile, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) also launched collaborative research projects with INSERM (National Institute of Medical Research) of France on defined thematics such as infectious diseases, cardiovascular and metabolic disorders including diabetes. This ICMR-INSERM support helped my team to resume our cooperation with JIPMER, Pondicherry. With a keen interest in the immunomodulatory properties of plant-derived molecules, I developed collaborative studies with CSIR-National Botanical Research Institute, Lucknow, under the Bio-Asia scheme. 

Another highly interesting twist in the career brought me further closer to Indian science. In 2015, CNRS selected me as its Director of Delhi Bureau. This assignment expanded my horizon, in enhancing the Indo-French cooperation beyond the mere interests of my research team. CNRS has entered into a strategic partnership with DST, DBT, CSIR, and several prime institutions of the country. The collaborative projects involving CNRS are emerging steadily addressing many social issues of not only India and France, but the serious challenges that the world is facing today, through meaningful scientific projects. 

Srini Kaveri is the Director of CNRS Bureau in New Delhi.