Brian Galloway : A respected molecular scientist
Brian Galloway is a respected molecular scientist who has been coming to, and working in Nepal for the past 10 years. He has played an important rolein setting up and developing a high-techlaboratory with his Nepalese colleagues. Among many projects, he has been involved in tracking the movements of Nepali Tigers and cancer diagnostics. Himalayan News Express sat down with Brian to see what brought a former Harvard scientist to Nepal.
How long have you been coming to Nepal?
I first came here about 10 years ago to set up a laboratory. It was back in 2006. I was working in the US and a Nepali friend of mine told me that in Nepal they could use my particular set of skills, so I said “sure, why not”. The surprising and exciting part was that he wanted me to actually go there alone. I ended up meeting a great group of guys over here and now we are coming up to our 10th year (Intrepid Nepal and the Center of Molecular Diagnosis).
What were the technical issues in starting a laboratory in Nepal?
Power requirements, water requirements, clean air requirements… Molecular biology is not a dusty business. We have overcome all of those issues rather quickly. We have taken some higher floors in a nice neighborhood and we managed the interior environmentally – air filtration, temperature control etc.
How did you end up working in Nepal?
When I was working at the Maschachuset General Hospital, we had many sales representatives who would pay us a call. Sometimes about the products we needed and sometimes the one we didn’t, but one of the projects we were working on was DNA sequencing and my sales representative was a young man, had a wife and children and he would come and start a conversation asking about my weekend. And I would tell him about my outdoor adventures like skiing, mountain biking etc. He was also an outdoorsy person himself, so we developed a friendship. We had great discussions over a coffee or a beer. One day, he told me that his friend is coming from Toronto, and since he is a “fun loving guy” and does adventure sports like me, I should meet him. So, I did. His company was going throughchanges and he wanted to start a laboratory in Nepal. We met and he told me about this great place to do bungee jumping (Last Resort in Nepal). He asked me if I wanted to go and well… since I had nothing better to do (laugh), I came to Nepal! He asked me to help him to set up some equipment for the laboratory, calculate the power and water requirements and finally train his first class, so they could operate at the minimum the experiments designed by anybody anywhere. I had sucha good time first time being here that I agreed when they asked me to come back in about 6 months. I ended up teaching a couple more classes of 5 -10 students at a time.
Did you actually go bungee jumping?
No. I haven’t been yet. But, I have been to the Last Resort and had a look at it and at the surrounding villages.
Usually people come to Nepal because of the Himalayas and trekking. Bungee jumping is not the most commonly mentioned reason.
During the 9 years I have been coming here, I haven’t actually been trekking. I visited a couple of villages, or what I call “remote sites”. One of the things we do (at the laboratory) is look at the human wildlife interface from the disease perspective(with CMDN and the University of California) so I had a chance to travel on the occasion of that research.
How do you find the cooperation with your Nepalese colleagues?
Our laboratory is sort of exceptional in the country. I have recently been invited to visit one of the government laboratories, as they told me that they have all the high standard equipment. I found out that their problem is the lack of resources to keep it up and running. I would say that sometimes private and academic institutions in a partnership with government can be much more effective at specific tasks. For example, at our laboratory we look at the wildlife conservation from the genetic standpoint. We look at the Nepal Tiger Genome project which at the moment is mostly micro satellite marking, but gives us just enough information to identify individual tigers and their relativeness through Nepal. So, if something happens we can do forensics, for the population study we can provide numbers, sex ratio data etc. We try to inform the Nepali government and the population about the condition of tigers in Nepal and at the moment it is in a relatively good shape. Nepal has done enough to preserve this resource and the population of tigers in Nepal is arguably on a rebound.
Why would you say the research that you do is important for an ordinary citizen of this country?
The other avenue that we explore is immunohistochemistry for cancer diagnostics. Before, this test was being sent to India, now it can be done in downtown Kathmandu.
Would you say that there is a significant percentage of people who struggle with cancer in Nepal?
There are increasing incidents, but perhaps it is increasing diagnosis rate. The presence of this diagnostic improves the general quality of medicine, even if it is at the top of the pyramid of diagnostic tests. There are many pathology labs, but the one we are aware of are not providing this service. For example, our laboratory can run tests detecting aggressive type of cancer in a matter of hours as opposed to days or weeks or not at all. And, it is incredibly cheap to do, so it is possible to make a great margin on it and the diagnostic is still affordable for people who might visit a doctor’s office. We can identify the pathogens if there is a cholera outbreak, or tuberculosis. We can tell it quickly and directly in the country and we can be directly answerable for everything we do.
What kind of support networks does the government have? What do they facilitate for aquasi-private research institutes in Nepal?
Sometimes it’san NGO, sometimes it’s the government. We are working with GIZ to look at hepatitis C, both identifying prevalence among drug users and their subsequent treatment. We can tell if the treatment is effective and monitor them. Also, we can do genotyping of hepatitis C which influences the way the treatment should go. We are finding it highly effective. Many of these patients are also infected with HIV from needle sharing etc., so we can monitor their viral load rate and we can adjust their therapy without the need to wait for the results from India. We can do it very quickly and within the limited resources.
We can clearly say that this type of the diagnostic is beneficial for everyone.
Yes. It also generates a culture of “yeah, we can do that”, “it is possible in Nepal”.
*Brian clarifies that the laboratory is not run by him or any other foreigner. There are very few actually collaborating with the laboratory.
As in the case of snow leopard genome cataloging project, there is a Nepali team collecting the samples. It is actually picking up poop samples. It may not be as exciting as spotting animals, but it is very noninvasive method. From this data we can say where they are and where they are moving. It is easier with the tigers because the population is larger but we can start doing GIS data (mapping) and we are looking at the corridors that the government set up. We are actually watching genetic movements between territories Bardia, Chitwan.
How effective do you find these corridors?
They seem to be effective. We are seeing that a few tigers at a time movebetween the areas through which they are not expected to be moving. Once a while, they will chose to go to the other protected territories because they are being pushed out by other groups or for a purpose of hunting etc. and we are watching these movements. We have a very much “field to lab” approach on wildlife genetics and “can do” attitude on human diagnostics.
When browsing about the research of your laboratory I could notice that there was a lot of information about wildlife projects but not so much about human diagnostics.
Well, in human diagnostics there are not many publications about individuals. There will be a report coming out with GIZand the government Integrated Biological and Behavioral Surveillance and we are looking at issues with women health in remote areas.
Would you say that there is a lot of cooperation between your laboratory and the government?
Yes. A lot of that results from the collaboration with the outside organizations i.e. from working with American and European Universities, whether being it health or wildlife interface or sort of pure wildlife research. Some projects are small some bigger. We work with USAID on Nepal Tiger Genome project, we cooperated with GIZ on human health and these organizations bring us credibility and demonstrate what we actually can do.
From the donors point of view, has there been any change in direction of research activities post-earthquake?
Yes. When I worked in Boston, at my department there was a women who was studying OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and other psychological phenomena in Nepal. The funny thing is that I had no idea at the time that she was doing that in Nepal and she had no idea about my connection to this country. When I told my supervisor that I was going to Nepal, he assumed that I’m joining her. Now, after the earthquake, she is here looking at posttraumatic stress disorder from the genetic standpoint. That requires very well developed tools and questionnaires for assessing gears of Nepali attitude and culture, so when we get the data we can say who seems to be the more affected and what are their genetics. Actually, the laboratory back in Boston was involved in doing a very similar study withthe victims of hurricane Katrina.
Is that something that would explain the Nepali resilience that was glorified in media after the earthquake?
I left actually two days before the earthquake. It traumatized the whole country. Everyone was affected, whether or not they tell you they are. I think that Nepali take it harder and internalize it and won’t speak about it. As a result they end up suffering more. Nepali people are probably the most resilient people on the planet, but it does not mean that they are not affected. They are still pretty much functional on the operational level. You don’t notice the physical difference, but you can see the intellectual progress slowing down.
How important are connections in the field of research?
It is mostly the connections outside Nepal. One of the things I work on is running training classes for students. And over the years most of my successful students have been accepted to foreign universities. They can add it to their CV and it increased their chances to get in. Some of them come back, some stay and work in America and Europe. It is mostly going to be a generational shift. The idea is that “we need more qualified Nepali people to do the job”. We have a project coming up in Bardia and we plan to hire a number of people for it. We absolutely have to hire people. We can’t do all the work by ourselves. That’s going to be wildlife related, but weneed a molecular biologist who can work in a laboratory and we will need 6 – 7 people to do this work. Brining somebody from outside to do this is essentially unacceptable.
Does anyone is questioning the quality of studies coming out of Nepal?
The data coming from our laboratory is as good as from anywhere else. The government institutions have the capacity, but not necessarily the sufficient training to do it right.
In the terms of capacity building are you feeling positive for the future?
Very, actually. We are at a great position at the moment. We have a lot of potential projectscoming in, possibly worth million dollars. Even though a lot of this is outsideinvestment or outsideresearch money, it is going to be the Nepali people trained in Nepal to do that and using equipmentthat is based here.