Using phage therapy to control water borne diseases for sustainable environment

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The Dopper Changemaker Challenge started in 2017 in the Netherlands. This year, it took place in Kathmandu along with other popular European cities including Amsterdam, Berlin, and London. The final of this international competition was held on 15th June Saturday not only in Kathmandu but also in Amsterdam, London, and Berlin. In total 445 students from all over the world applied to get a chance to win the title of Changemaker 2019.

One of the top ten ideas of Dopper Changemaker Challenge in Nepal was submitted by Sudati Shrestha, Tejaswi Kunwar and Sachin Shrestha. Here, we have Sudati and Tejaswi sharing with us what their thesis was about and their overall experience at Dopper. Read on to find out more.

1. Could you tell us about your project that got selected at Dopper Changemaker Challenge?
Both us completed out Bachelors in Biotechnology from Kathmandu University in 2018 and this was something we had thought about in our 2nd year. Actually the idea just came to our mind while we were hanging out having chiya and khaja, the idea was further discussed with our supervisor before making it our final project. However, we had worked on it in our 3rd year, just the bit of the basic but nothing much before Dopper. So, when this challenge was announced, Sudati encouraged us to participate in it and that’s how we started the Dopper journey. Honestly, we have no expectation that we would be selected so become a finalist was far off our imagination. But here we are!

Our thesis is titled Phage therapy for biocontrol. So, the main idea is to kill bacteria through a virus. One of the major contaminators of water is a bacterium called Ecoli, whose presence is also an indicator of water contamination. If we’re able to kill it then most of the water-borne diseases can be prevented so that’s why we chose Ecoli as the target bacteria and came up with a virus that specifically kills Ecoli. A lot of people are skeptical about the virus and have a negative connotation towards it but this one is host-specific and it only kills E-coli to sustain itself. Even if it comes into contact with the human body, it doesn’t harm the body in anyways. Plus, the virus is environment-friendly so it’s a win-win if we use it to disinfect water.

2. How was our experience at Dopper Changemaker challenge?
We think through Dopper, we got to revive our project and work on it further. Here, we also got to realize that social businesses actually do work and have value in the world. We also got to network with youths just like us, experts in environment-related fields, key stakeholders in the Nepali government and wonderful mentors at HCI. Additionally, we got to aware of a lot of people about bacteriophage and its benefits, which we were surprised even a few professors were unaware of. All in all, we started to feel more conscious about the environment we’re living in and the need to do something to conserve it. 

3. What challenges did you face while conducting the research?
If you’re researching in Nepal, we think people always face the difficulty of limited resources and lab facilities. It was the same case with us. Then Kathmandu University also got closed down for a certain time so we had to redo a lot of work, causing time lag. Also, sometimes we couldn’t get the virus in the first shot so we had to do it again and again so that involved a lot of stress too. Guess those were the most challenging things we went through.

4. So what are your immediate future plans? Are you planning to enter the startup world with this idea?
We’re trying to aware people as much as we can about bacteriophage but we still think that we need to put in a lot of research before we can come up with something concrete that we can sell in the market. As for our immediate future plan, we’ll be taking up the same topic in our Masters. If not, we’ll be involved in any other topic in Microbiology and the environment. Hopefully, we might even come up with a startup in the next 5-6 years? Who knows, let’s see. 

5. Are you guys currently involved in anything related to the environment?
Tejaswi: I am researching in KU in the same topic full time under a professor’s supervision to see how further we can go with the research.
Sudati: I’m currently doing a full-time job at Decode Genomics and Research Center but I’m also supporting my teammates whenever I can.

Other than that, we had recently participated in an International conference at NAST called “International symposium on Gene regulation to genome architecture 2020” where we had to do poster presentation of our research. Quite unexpectedly, we won the competition there so that’s also something we’re very proud of.

6. How did you like the atmosphere at Dopper Changemaker Challenge and at HCI as a whole?
It was very fun! There was a lot of learning but mostly it was friendly and fun. I think that made the learning process even better. There was not competitive feeling among the finalists and everyone was ready to help one another. Even Shilshila Ma’am was very supportive and friendly with us. She’d send us articles about the topic we were doing research in which and used to make us feel like we’re looked after. I think this kind of environment is hard to get anywhere else in Nepal. 

7. What kept you going? Were there some people that you think helped you get to where you are now?
Absolutely! We’re very grateful to Dr. Sangita Shakya, who is the Head of the Department of Biotechnology. She helped us conduct the research and even supervised our work. Then there’s Dopper and HCI, without whom this project would’ve just been in papers. Lastly, the support we got from Shilshila Ma’am was amazing. Even though she is the CEO at HCI, we never got the feeling that we need to consider the hierarchy or something like that while talking with us. It was just always a friendly environment to be in. 

To know about their thesis, please connect with Sudati at sudatishrestha27@gmail.com.

Interviewed and article by Yangzum Lama