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Altruistic behaviour

Oncology, as per the Vedanta

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HEALING TOUCH: Das has shown that certain human embryonic stem cells under duress produce molecules that benefit not just themselves but also help nearby cells survive

The philosophy of altruism underlines Dr Bikul Das' research into the growth of deadly cancer cells.

From the silk capital of Assam - a small village called Sualkuchi near Guwahati - to the corridors of Stanford University Medical Center, Dr Bikul Das had to fight a long and hard battle to make his radical discovery about cancer cells. His path-breaking work is based on a basically spiritual theory of altruistic behaviour, the seeds of which were sown in his heart and mind by his father, a follower of Vedantic philosophy.

Last year in June, a new study led by Dr Das has shown that certain human embryonic stem cells under duress produce molecules that benefit not just themselves but also help nearby cells survive. "Altruism is a biological force of regeneration, what we call in a layman's term, the self-healing ability in human cells. Our question is why these cells are not using the force to fight the cancer cells in our body, " says Das. He and his team are now building a molecular interactive model to engage altruistic stem cells against cancer stem cells.

"Studying altruism could help to understand the initial phase of the development of the malignant makeover, which in turn would help in the early diagnosis of cancer, " says Das. The doctor is very optimistic about wiping out cancer but points out that more research is needed. "If we know the secret, then we may be able to kill the cancer, " he says.

Das' father, the late Krishna Ram Das, wrote a book of Assamese poetry, Sonali Nakhar Jui, in which he referred to altruism as a Vaishnavite philosophy. "I was then an MBBS student and I quite rejected his idea. He died in 1982 of throat cancer after an intense struggle. He asked me if altruism has a role to play in cancer and insisted that our own cells might be altruistic and possess the ability to fight against cancer, " he recalls.

Das, who graduate from Guwahati medical College, writes in his Stanford website: "Cancer is considered as a disease of cellular evolution to reach a state of self-sufficiency and immortality. The final stage of this evolution is the appearance of aggressive and metastatic cancer cells. During my clinical practice in India, while treating cancer patients, an important and disturbing question came to my mind: why should a cancer cell, towards the end of its evolution to become an aggressive cell exhibit features of embryonic stem cells? After all, embryonic stem cells create life, whereas aggressive cancer cells kill life. "

A Doctor of Philosophy from University of Toronto (2007) and Fellow in Stem Cell, Das won the Harold E Johns Fellowship award of the Canadian Cancer Society in 2009. Das has also been awarded a prestigious grant under the Gates Foundation's Global Health Grant to explore the role of stem cells in the management of tubercular infection.

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