A few decades ago, Harikrishna Nakshatri, PhD, was practicing veterinary medicine in India. After traveling the world to study hormonal signaling and earning a PhD in molecular biology, he’s now using that knowledge to research new ways to fight breast cancer.
“From the very beginning, I’ve been interested in how the hormones function in the body, because they are small molecules,” said Dr. Nakshatri. “I used to practice large animal medicine, and hormonal signaling is critical for cows to be productive, so that drew my curiosity and now I’m working on hormonal breast cancer.”
Dr. Nakshatri earned a BVSc in veterinary medicine from University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, India in 1982. After practicing veterinary medicine for several years, he went to Canada and earned a PhD in molecular biology from Memorial University of Newfoundland in 1990. From there, Dr. Nakshatri completed post-doctoral work in Strausburg, France and did research in New York. In 1996, he joined Indiana University School of Medicine Department of Surgery to specifically study breast cancer. He’ll now be part of the new Vera Bradley Foundation Center for Breast Cancer Research at IU School of Medicine.
“I used to work mostly on the hormonal signaling in my graduate and post-doctoral studies, but this position was for breast cancer, and that’s what I wanted to do,” said Dr. Nakshatri.
Since then, Dr. Nakshatri has led numerous lab-based studies. One current project includes looking at breast biology to find if there are ethnic differences in the normal breast that could impact how tumors behave.
“The current concept is that a breast tumor is not a single disease,” said Dr. Nakshatri. “It is a different disease to different individuals, so we need to understand the normal biology before we can understand their tumor.”
Dr. Nakshatri’s lab also studies how cancer affects the rest of the body, how estrogen receptor positive and estrogen receptor negative breast cancers behave and what happens if and when cancer comes back later in a woman’s life.
“If we can find out how the cancer affects other parts of the body, can we come up with a way to improve the quality of life,” said Dr. Nakshatri.
The lab also works with patients, taking samples from them to research tumors. Dr. Nakshatri says he enjoys spending time with patient advocates to find out what is most important to them so the lab can better focus their research efforts.
“We came up with a way where we can grow the cells from patients and then analyze them at the genomic level and test different drugs on them,” said Dr. Nakshatri.
At the same time, Dr. Nakshatri is taking what his lab learns and teaching the next generation of graduate students as a professor of surgery and molecular chemistry and biology. He is also the associate director of education for the IU Simon Cancer Center and co-leads the breast cancer program. Dr. Nakshatri also works with graduate and doctoral students in the lab as well as high school teachers from local schools during the summer so they can teach their students about how research works.
“The first and foremost message I give to anybody who comes to the lab,” said Dr. Nakshatri, “is that you do not work for me, you work for yourself.”
Dr. Harikrishna Nakshatri is the Marian J. Morrison professor of breast cancer research at IU School of Medicine.