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Meet a Riley Researcher: Dr. Naro Biswas

Riley Researcher: Dr. Naro Biswas

In her second year working for Riley Children’s Health, Dr. Naro Biswas participated as a celebrity dancer in the “Reason to Dance” fundraiser for Riley Children’s Foundation. The experience helped her connect to patients and to the Foundation’s role in funding research.

At the Wells Center for Pediatric Research in the Gene and Cell Therapy department, Dr. Biswas is an assistant professor of pediatrics and primarily studies gene and cell therapy for hemophilia. Hemophilia is an X-linked, genetic disorder that mostly affects males. Genetic mutations cause a lack of clotting factors (blood-clotting proteins), which can lead to uncontrolled or spontaneous bleeds. This affects the patients’ quality of life.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the only way to treat patients with hemophilia was to give them blood transfusions containing the clotting factor. Patients now receive infusions of recombinant clotting factors. However, treatment is intensive, requiring two to four infusions per week. A subset of patients develop immune responses to this protein replacement therapy.

In Dr. Biswas’s research, her team works on two main approaches. The first is to try to induce tolerance to the protein replacement therapy. “We take the patient’s own cells and engineer them to only recognize the clotting factor,” Dr. Biswas explains. “These regulatory T cells suppress immune responses to the clotting factor, allowing the patient to tolerate the therapy.” The second approach is working on a lasting therapy, to reduce frequent clotting factor infusions and risk of bleeds. This involves an infusion of a benign adeno associated virus (AAV) carrying a corrected copy of the mutated gene. Once injected, the patient’s liver cells will start producing the clotting factor, ideally for the lifetime of the individual.

Dr. Biswas carried out her graduate studies in India where she worked with tropical viral infections like West Nile or Japanese encephalitis that affected children. Every time there was an epidemic, they received many patient samples. “A large percentage of these very young patients were not making it,” Dr. Biswas explains. “These viruses were seen as evil. It was only after I came to the U.S. to do my post-doctoral studies when I realized we could use viruses as a gene therapy vehicle. We can manipulate the inherent capacity of the virus to enter into a cell to deliver useful genes and cure diseases.”

Dr. Biswas believes that instead of choosing Riley, Riley chose her. Before coming to Indiana, she worked at the University of Florida. The Riley administration recognized a need for gene therapy and recruited her entire team from Florida. “Since working here, I have never felt such a stronger connection with patients,” Dr. Biswas says. “Because we are so close to the hospital, we always know what we are working towards and never lose faith in our direction.” Now raising a child of her own, her passion increases as she strives to find a cure.

Gene and cell therapy uses new, cutting edge techniques. Many patients are concerned about the potential risks in taking the leap to adopt these therapies. If she had increased funding, Dr. Biswas would work on research to further prove the safety of gene therapy to patients. She would also explore opportunities to mitigate immune responses in other circumstances, such as autoimmune disorders or organ transplants.

Dr. Biswas and her team are deeply grateful for donor support, especially in moments when the research process is challenging. “We want to thank you for your faith in us,” she says. “We realize there are people who are counting on us to work towards finding a cure or managing a disease. It helps us take the next step forward.”