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Star Scientist of the Month- Dr Vaibhao Janbandhu

Dr Vaibhao Janbandhu lives by the motto: ‘Cultivation of mind should be the ultimate aim of human existence.’

This desire to learn new things, make new discoveries and push himself every day is a trait he inherited from his parents. His quest for knowledge has seen him move from agricultural science to cancer research and even vaccine development. But it’s Dr Janbandhu's breakthrough research into heart attacks at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute that inspires him the most.

Dr Vaibhao Janbandhu in the Institute's laboratory

How do you go from studying plant biotechnology to being one at the forefront of cardiovascular research in Australia?

Frankly, growing up in a small village in the Indian countryside, I wanted to be a sportsperson during my high-school days, and even participated in various cricket and volleyball tournaments. My dedication to sports is reflected in my pre-university grades. My grades weren’t good enough to get me into medicine or engineering – the then most sought-after fields. So, I had to opt for a BSc in Agricultural Science. During that period, I was a bit lost and wondered what my passion was, however, my parents always believed in me and kept telling me I would find something that would inspire me. They were right!

With their constant encouragement, I earned a University Gold Medal, secured a Junior Research Fellowship from the Indian Council of Agriculture Research and got admitted to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in New Delhi to pursue a Master’s degree in plant biotechnology. I grabbed this opportunity, worked really hard and that’s when my interest in scientific research started.

You were then admitted to the University of Cambridge to pursue a PhD. How did that feel?

I was successful but ended up heartbroken because I missed out on the very competitive Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Cambridge Scholarship. I couldn’t afford to go there without funding, so I started exploring other opportunities.

Fortunately, I had other national/international fellowships and was able to take my pick and I joined the United Nations' International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology to pursue a PhD in virology.

I was very nervous as medical research was very new to me at that time, but I have been very fortunate in my work and in getting the support and encouragement of many people I worked with. I used that opportunity and published a few papers on my doctoral thesis work. That was the beginning of my medical science career.

My PhD work was acknowledged in the development of the Hepatitis B vaccine which was incredibly rewarding.

You moved on to the Max Planck Institute in Munich which proved to be instrumental in more ways than one.

Vaibhao Janbandhu with his wife Bharti and two children

It was at a time when I wanted to explore further and establish myself in the medical research field. At the end of PhD, I was offered postdoctoral positions in various prestigious institutes in Europe and USA. Continuing on from my PhD work on liver cancer, I chose Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Munich where I developed mouse models of skin cancers. This was a steep learning curve for me - cutting-edge technologies, mouse genetics, guiding students and driving the projects independently in a very competitive environment. I worked long hours and was so occupied in the lab-life, I had almost no personal life outside.

A work overdose can obviously be harmful and counterproductive but fortunately, I met and got married to Bharti who then worked in the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology. She is very caring and understands me well. It was my marriage and the birth of our first daughter, Shanaya, that led me to enjoy my life outside the lab. Shanaya is now 11 and keeps telling me that she wants to pursue a career outside science! Well, we will see!

Luckily, I was also able to work on a collaborative project at the University of Oxford and that was very fulfilling since studying/working in either Cambridge or Oxford University was one of my dreams.

How did you adjust to working at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute knowing nothing about the heart?

Honestly, I did not plan what to do next after leaving the Max Planck Institute. Being in cancer research for almost nine years, I thought I should change my field of research and I started exploring other research avenues. I stumbled upon the advertisement for a postdoctoral position in Professor Richard Harvey’s lab. He was looking for a candidate with experience in cell cycle for his project so I thought my profile was a good fit. He’s a world leader in the field of developmental and regenerative biology so, of course, I wasted no time in applying. I still remember my interview ended up running more than four hours on Skype. We just talked non-stop, so I kind of guessed that I had a chance and I got the job.

Although, most of the skillsets are generally common in different research fields, the next challenge was to get myself up to speed with cardiovascular research - especially cardiac fibroblasts biology. So, I spent a lot of time reading for the first four to six months and tried to learn new techniques in the heart research field. Richard was instrumental in getting me ready for the tasks in hand. He is very knowledgeable and constantly challenging you as a scientist and pushed the team to do high-quality science. He has always inspired me to do my best and with his intellectual advice and support, I am not afraid to tackle big, important problems or seemingly impossible experiments!

Credit should also go to the people I am surrounded with – lab members, faculty, colleagues at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, and collaborators, they all are very inspiring and friendly.

I joined the Institute in 2013 and am now at the point where I have real independence in designing and leading the projects in the lab. Looking back, it was the best decision I could have made on both fronts - professional and personal.

Dr Vaibhao Janbandhu with Prof Richard Harvey and other colleagues at Victor Chang Institute

You’re studying fibrosis; scarring which takes place after the heart is injured. Why is scarring so dangerous to the heart?

Fibrosis/scarring is a natural process to restore tissue function during healthy wound healing. We all have scars, it’s the way the body repairs and regenerates itself.

However, fibrosis in the heart or a scarring event in the cardiac muscle is a significant health problem as it limits the heart’s ability to function efficiently and can increase the risk of heart failure, as well as sudden cardiac death. Because, cardiomyocytes, major cell type responsible for heart contractility, have negligible regenerative capacity, death of a large number of cardiomyocytes following cardiac injury results in their replacement with a fibrotic scar. Thus, cardiac fibrosis is an unavoidable consequence of acute/chronic insult to the heart and is associated with nearly all forms of heart disease. Therefore, understanding the mechanisms responsible for initiation, progression and resolution of cardiac fibrosis is crucial for development of effective therapies for the treatment of cardiac fibrosis.

Cardiac fibroblasts are the main effector cells in cardiac fibrosis and our research, published last year in the journal Cell Stem Cell, revealed that oxidant build up causes these cells to expand their numbers, and too many fibroblasts lead to excessive scarring. In this study, we have discovered an important protective response in the heart that could limit the damage done after a heart attack and this reactive response can prevent some of the excessive scarring that occurs due to lack of oxygen. Additionally, we have also developed and published automated pipelines for high-throughput analysis of cardiac imaging data and 3D analysis of cardiac fibrosis.

Since our findings are exclusively based on pre-clinical data, they may not fully reflect responses in cardiac fibroblasts in human hearts. Nevertheless, these findings collectively indicate that cardiac fibroblasts represent potential cellular targets for designer antioxidant therapies in cardiovascular disease. Fibrosis doesn’t just occur in the heart but is also seen in other injuries and diseases, so hopefully this work can eventually translate to help other conditions as well.

I do hope that the research we are doing will have some sort of impact in a clinical setting.

You recently gave a presentation at the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) Annual Meeting in San Francisco on your fibrosis work. What was it like to finally be back at conferences in the post-COVID era?

With 4000 attendees, speakers, exhibitors, sponsors, and media, it’s one of the biggest conferences in the world. To participate and present our work at such a big event was a surreal experience considering there was no face-to-face meetings in the last three years. I really enjoyed presenting, but of course, speaking at one of the main conference sessions was nerve-wracking too. I try to participate in as many conferences to present posters or talks in order to receive critique on our experiments and get exposure to the wider scientific community. The most satisfying aspect was that many researchers were interested in our work and approached me about the novel protocols/pipelines we published recently. Interaction with world leaders in stem cell research and regenerative medicine, and potential collaboration opportunities, made it incredibly worthwhile.

Dr Vaibhao Janbandhu at ISSCR 2022 in San Francisco

You’ve got few papers in the pipeline and are now at the stage of applying for major NHMRC grants. What’s your ultimate goal?

Yes, we are working on few manuscripts and hope to publish them in near future. We have also started very exciting new collaborative projects and the plan is to utilise the groundwork to seek funding. Research funding is incredibly hard and competitive, so the plan is to apply for not only NHMRC/major grants but also for small/medium grants. Writing grants proposals is hard, it takes a long time and success rates are low. I am concentrating on my work and hope to grab the funding opportunities as they come along.

Although I am a goal-oriented person, I am not good at long-term planning. For now, I have committed to working alongside Richard to really drive our work on cardiac fibrosis. Ultimately, developing the niche that distinguishes you from others is very important. I have great belief in my ability and I constantly strive to accomplish my dreams.

You work very long hours and a lot of weekends? How do you balance that with having a family and home life?

I am not sure whether I balance my work/family life! Though, I am very happy person in and outside of the lab that credit goes to my wife, Bharti! Being in the research field, she understands the nature of my work and is very supportive. She knows that every science-related endeavour is time consuming and has taken sole responsibility of running the home. Therefore, I have freedom to enjoy my family life. She works as a lab manager in the Harvey laboratory and I have a great appreciation for her personal and professional commitments. We have two daughters, Shanaya and Anula, and outside the lab, you will always find me with them. We also have a very good friend network and spend a lot of time together on weekends. Spending quality time with family and friends usually helps to recharge myself.

I wish I had more spare time for my hobbies – reading, travelling, hiking, photography, painting, and sports. However, I find enjoyment in everything I do, so no regrets there. I had some time for painting during the pandemic lockdown and wanted to submit one of my paintings for the last Art of the Heart competition, but could not. Hopefully, next time!

You are not the only high-flyer in your family it seems.

My parents always encouraged positive emotional growth in all of us and have the biggest influence in our lives. They also encouraged my brother and sisters to pursue their dreams too. We are very close to each-other and have a very strong family-bond!

Dr Vaibhao Janbandhu with his siblings Bhawana, Darshana and Chetan

My sister Bhawana is a textile designer, entrepreneur, and social worker whose work was showcased at the Royal Easter Show in Sydney a few years back. Another sister Darshana worked in the Bollywood industry and now works as a French tutor and my brother Chetan completed a Master’s degree in computer science from the Indian Institute of Science and now works with Nokia as a software engineer in New Jersey, USA. I learned one thing from them – ‘Do it with passion or not at all.'

Sadly, I lost my dad in 2019 but the social work he was doing lives on. He ran a NGO that helped to improve the welfare of underprivileged kids and people in India. My sister and mom have carried on that work and did an incredible job providing food, shelter, and help during the COVID crisis where the pandemic lockdown turned into a human tragedy. We all miss dad but his legacy lives on, thanks to Bhawana and my mom’s commitment towards the principle of 'pay back to society!'

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land, the Gadigal of the Eora nation, on which we meet, work, and discover.
Our Western Australian laboratories pay their respect to the Whadjuk Noongar who remain as the spiritual and cultural custodians of their land.

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