Jump-starting development and support of molecular medicine research activities in Nepal: Bioscience & Biotechnology conference co-organised by FIMM
While Nepal is still a developing country, the first steps have already been taken toward rising in life science and to elevate the status of the country toward international standards in the health sector. In this context, the 2nd International Conference on Bioscience and Biotechnology – 2018 (ICBB-2018), themed Avenues of translational biomedical research in Nepal, aimed to bring together both local and international dignitaries to present their own research and ideas.
The conference had a total of 180 registered participants, out of which 163 were countrymen. International guests included a delegation of 14 researchers from FIMM, University of Helsinki, among which were the former Director of the Institute, Professor Jaakko Kaprio and senior research leaders Professor Krister Wennerberg, Professor Tero Aittokallio and Dr. Emmy Verschuren. FIMM researchers were also deeply involved in organizing the conference. Senior Researcher Markus Vähä-Koskela was the Co-Chair and Dr. Prson Gautam a member of the organizing committee.
The trip highlighted the potential of Nepal and its researchers to contribute to biobank-based studies that utilize the cultural, environmental and genetic variation within and of the country. Collaboration with FIMM and equivalent organizations can help jumpstart such a development. The conference is a starting point, and a basis for further discussion and exploration of the necessary funding sources.
- Professor Jaakko Kaprio
The conference was held at four different venues: Dhulikhel Hospital (DH), Kathmandu University (KU), Mirabel Resort and Pataleban Vineyard Resort. On-site visits were made to the Nepal Cancer Hospital and Research Center (NCHRC) and the Research Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology (RIBB). The program served not only to display and promote life science research in Nepal, but also to highlight and bring to discussion key political points affecting research and development in Nepal. Despite issues plaguing many developing countries, including restricted access to rural areas and lack of formalized social security, and despite damage to infrastructure, e.g. as a result of the 2015 earthquake, the country has managed to foster top quality hospitals, universities and research centers that can contend with international standards, and there is a strong will to elevate the country even higher.
The first scientific session of the conference was on biobanking, one of the main points of interest for the conference, and included two talks from Finland; the first by FIMM laboratory coordinator Tiina Vesterinen and the second by graduate student Andrew Erickson from FIMM. The next session was focused on natural products, one of the greatest and most promising resources of Nepal. The former FIMM Director, Prof. Jaakko Kaprio concluded the day by highlighting some key epidemiological advances, and how digital health solutions can predict relative risks for select diseases irrespective of age, gender or ethnicity. Since Nepal hosts some 125 ethnic and caste groups, many of which have remained genetically quite isolated, the country offers an intriguing and untapped resource for independent and comparative population genetic studies.
At the second conference day, cancer was the focus, and several delegates from Finland presented the latest trends on personalized cancer medicine, both from an experimental and computational biology angle. Genetics, population dynamics, social- and external factors combine to give the Nepali country-specific cancer hallmarks. As an example, almost all cancers hit populations 10-20 years younger than in the West. The country-specific manifestations of diseases raise interesting questions of precision medicine and cancer medicine profiling on a systems level, which is another cornerstone of FIMM know-how. Prof Wennerbergs and Prof Aittokallios groups have a long standing collaboration and expertise to link phenotypes to underlying molecular features to reveal new mechanisms governing cancer growth. Prof. Peyman Björklund from the University of Uppsala, Sweden, demonstrated as a point for inspiration how a high-impact paper is built and what the requirements are to publish in the highest impact journals. During the day, the three best posters were selected and the winners awarded.
The conference and associated meetings were extremely useful for understanding the current status of biotechnology research in Nepal, and to plan the next steps of future collaborations in the fields of personalized medicine and biobanking. The researchers in Nepal have many complementary skills and they are very willing to collaborate, and I was especially impressed by the positive and forward-looking attitude of the students we met during the conference.
- Professor Tero Aittokallio
Both the foreign delegates and local leaders spent the last day of the conference discussing research policies in Nepal and how to influence them. One of the obstacles to intensifying and pushing research forward in Nepal are the severe taxes which prohibit many research and development activities that could otherwise have been possible. In order to implement changes in this area, Dr. Binod Yadav, Associate Professor at the Department of Biochemistry, Institute of Medicine, Tribhuvan University, stressed the need to form a steering committee, consisting of the leaders of all major research institutes, universities and research hospitals in Nepal, which would be central in policy making in Nepal in the future. As a result of this conference, several unifying meetings between different institutes in the Kathmandu were scheduled and the first one has already been organized.
It is like a dream come true! I have always wished to do something to uplift the biomedical research in Nepal. I think the conference was a huge success. I was really amazed by the enthusiasm and interests of both national and international participants. I truly believe that the meeting has educated and inspired us (Nepalese) to put our baby steps towards the direction of collaborative approach, biobanking, translational research and personalized medicine. Moreover, the meeting has inspired the international scientific communities to collaborate and explore the natural products (one of the aspects that Nepal is known for) for the medical use and to deliver ground breaking scientific discoveries. Not only the scientific endeavor, ICBB2018 also brought different national and international universities together and provided an avenue to promote different exchange programs between the universities to foster education, research and technology.
- Prson Gautam, PhD, conference organizing committee member
From a Finnish perspective, the conference provided an opportunity to listen to the exact needs and hopes of the health sector of Nepal and to map how Finland, the Nordic countries, and the European community as a whole could help. The Finnish delegation was highly impressed with the brilliant minds orchestrating research and development in Nepal. Several collaborative and mutually beneficial projects were outlined, most of which carry significant international funding potential. On a larger scale, Nepal offers for Finland a unique opportunity to build long-lasting ties of trust; for a developing country on the rise, the best partner may very well be a country of high education and high technology that values honesty above all else.
The most tangible and immediate return of the meeting was the large number of new acquaintances. We have now established personal connections and trust between Finnish and Nepali researchers and high level decision makers, which ultimately is the driving factor in realizing any hands-on collaboration in the future. The will to start joint work is very tangible at both ends.
A very special meeting, superbly organised and hosted. A timely meeting that should jump-start the much needed support of molecular medicine research activities in Nepal, and the developing world. This was a meeting of minds and hearts, around a set of common values, and the overwhelming shared feeling during the meeting’s aftermath is that this was just the seed of much more to come.
- Emmy Verschuren, PhD, Group Leader
Read the whole conference report here.
Mr. Kshitiz Shrestha, Mr. Gaurav Gajurel, Mr. Mitesh Shrestha and Mr. Sunil Shrestha are acknowledged for the pictures.