Bridging the ‘Gap’: A UK-India wound biofilms collaboration

The global COVID-19 lockdown brought forth several challenges to science, but we would agree that along with these unprecedented work changes came several new opportunities. To start with, faculty and researchers away from their laboratories, got a chance to reflect on their research goals and future scientific agendas.

It was during one such introspective online meeting focused on building collaborations, that Snehal Kadam, a research fellow in Karishma’s group at the University of Pune brought up the research being done in Joey’s laboratory at the University of Sheffield. Coincidentally, at the same time Joey’s group had been discussing a recent paper written by Snehal and Karishma as a good example of science communication. This led to a set of introductory emails, which not only ‘broke the ice’, but also led to more understanding of the research agenda of both groups. Karishma explains, 

“One of Joey’s emails said she really liked our group website and it gave her a solid idea of what we were working on, and I remember thinking, if this collaboration works out, there could not be a better return on investment for developing and updating our website”.

Joey and Karishma took the next step to set up a Zoom call, and they recall that first conversation lasted about an hour,

“We pretty much hit it off, science and otherwise. We were both fielding teaching, work and home in the midst of the pandemic, which gave us a lot of common ground to get started on!”

In the call, they went onto to describe to each other their divergent methods to develop human-relevant laboratory models for wound biofilms,

“We realized we had different approaches, but an overall similar target’, says Joey. ‘I was surprised we had not known of or met each other before,” Karishma adds.

It was a collaboration waiting to happen. What followed next was the search for potential funding opportunities, which would be important to fund not only the research, but also travel and in-person visits, given the international nature of the collaboration.

“A few google hits was all it took to find the Royal Society International Exchange Programme. I rushed to send the link to Joey, saying we should apply for this. Working on the proposal together turned out to be an intellectual treat, with the exchange of ideas and framing of the workflow. As we worked on the shared document, it became even more evident that our individual wound biofilm models would not only complement each other, but would also lead to a composite model with potential to replace or reduce current animal-based preclinical testing for wound biofilm therapeutics,” Joey explains.

This would be an impactful and exciting outcome, and make a compelling case for funding. The Royal Society Programme has well-defined timelines for proposal submissions and expected results, and they found this very helpful,

“We heard that we were selected for funding in about 5 months, and notwithstanding the travel restrictions in place, we wanted to get started with work at our individual ends right away”.

The aim of this international exchange is to bridge research expertise across both groups in UK and India, to co-develop a human-relevant 3D wound model of multispecies biofilms, as a potential alternative to animal-based pre-clinical testing. This will bring together two platforms, a bioengineered model of infected human skin (from Joey’s group) and an in-house developed simulant would fluid milieu (from Karishma’s group). Through this 2-year collaboration, this exchange will have developed for the scientific community a laboratory platform that recapitulates the wound infection state with multispecies biofilm growth, in the presence of relevant host components. In doing so, this model will serve as a human-relevant platform for host-pathogen infection studies and preclinical testing.  

For both women investigators, this will establish a new collaboration and advance personal academic success and career progression. Karishma is an early-career investigator, who has returned to India (from the US) to establish her group. Joey has previously enjoyed partnership projects with groups in India and is keen to expand her network of collaborators there. Further, project participants from both groups will benefit from the cross-cultural experience of working in a new lab and learning new techniques.  

At an international level, this collaboration will enable the development of a model which is based on previous work done in the UK (at the University of Sheffield), to serve as a potential pre-clinical testing platform. Joey explains,

“This would be an invaluable tool for many biofilm groups, advancing UK (and global) research into biofilm behaviour and treatments. In addition the direct exchange of knowledge and new collaborative links forged would strengthen UK research in areas of global importance such as difficult-to-treat biofilms, chronic wounds, novel antimicrobials and animal alternatives”.

For the research ecosystem in India, this will enable the development of an infected wound biofilm model, and advance the national agenda of human-relevant research. Karishma says,

“In the last decade, India has made a strong push towards human-based research, with an impetus to reduce the use of animals in research; regulations and laws are now in place that restrict the use of animals in teaching and research. This road map includes the indigenous development of organoid and organ on chip methods, forging international collaborations, and establishing centers focused on human-based research. Our collaborative work will support India’s focus and transition towards becoming a key global player in this area, by furthering human-based research being conducted in the country”.  

While the pandemic has put a hold on imminent travel plans, both groups have initiated discussions on experiments and shared research updates on their model systems. The next two years will see exchange of teams in both directions, and the bringing together of the platforms. This exchange truly aims to ‘bridge the gap’ – across model systems, researchers, science ecosystems, and countries. 

Joey ShepherdUniversity of Sheffield, UK and Karishma S KaushikUniversity of Pune, India