My Lab Unlocked: Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Biochemistry, Sanjib Bhakta FRSB

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Professor Sanjib Bhakta FRSB on how his highly diverse lab is helping to find new treatments for TB.

The Mycobacteria Research Laboratory (ISMB-MRL) is committed to the global fight against tuberculosis (TB), lung health and antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Established in 2006, with funding from the Wellcome Trust, Medical Research Council, UK and various British Council, Commonwealth, EU and international research grants, it is now a leading centre for groundbreaking, cross-disciplinary research. The lab is part of the UCL-Birkbeck joint research Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology and UCL-TB (a WHO Collaborating Centre for TB Research and Innovation in the UK) and partners with the Foundation for Neglected Disease Research (FNDR), Bengaluru, India for the translational part of the lab’s research objectives.

Our research aims to find new treatments for TB by either validating novel therapeutic targets or repurposing drugs. Mycobacterium tuberculosis has been around for more than a thousand years. Tuberculosis (TB) cases continued to rise in England in 2023 and London remains the TB capital of Europe. Although the drug development pipelines are currently well-populated, very little has been done over the years leading to very high infection rates with both drug-susceptible and drug-resistant TB. The motivation of our work is to reverse AMR in TB by identifying drug-like lead molecules with novel mechanisms of action to prevent cross-resistance with current therapy or to find potentiators of current treatment regimens. We are also expanding our research focus to include NTMIs as the protracted therapy regimens, coupled with very low treatment success, are far from optimal.

 sanjib resize 2Professor Sanjib Bhakta is committed to the global fight against tuberculosis (TB), lung health and antimicrobial resistance (AMR)

Our lab attracts researchers from all over the world.
Not surprisingly, many of them belong to high-TB-burden countries such as those in Africa, the Indian sub-continent and south-east Asia. We also attract talented scientists from countries across Europe and the UK. These researchers have highly diverse academic backgrounds in microbiology, structural and molecular biology, biochemistry, natural product chemistry and organic chemistry.

We strongly believe that research cannot be carried out in isolation. Therefore, we seek every opportunity to collaborate with experts from universities and research institutes across the world and build international capacity to tackle a key global challenge. Recently, the lab staff and students took part in an exchange programme with scientists from the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur (IIT), India. The programme was created to facilitate educational exchanges between Asia and Europe and encourage academic research collaborations on a balanced and permanent basis.

We need to generate public awareness and interest at community level to effectively tackle TB, which is still a social stigma. One approach we have greatly invested in is to get school children interested in STEM so that they will be committed to tackling the disease later on in their careers. The lab was delighted to win the IST’s ‘I’m a Scientist: Get me Out of here’ competition and is using the prize money to further engage with a local College to extend their ‘TB or not TB: Thinking Beyond the Obvious’ outreach project. Recently, the lab research group hosted a public engagement event, Breaking Barriers in Science, which engaged participants from local schools, along with representatives from Y20@G20 in India, The Commonwealth Secretariat, STEM and social mobility charity In2scienceUK and the Wellcome Trust.

sanjib 3 resizeThe Mycobacteria Research Laboratory (MRL) is a global force for TB eradication

As with every sector, research has challenges that have been exacerbated as a result of the current politico-economic climate.
The UK’s exit from the European Union led to a decrease in funding available for research, increasing the competition between laboratories for the limited resources available. This means that many ‘riskier’ research projects, which could have groundbreaking potential, do not receive the support they require. This has also led to talent being drawn away from the country, a trend we plan to reverse in the future.

After almost two decades, the Mycobacteria Research Laboratory (MRL) epitomises global collaboration in tuberculosis research. As we mentor the next generation via the Diversity 100 Scholarship program, we are confident of their potential to carry forward the ISMB-MRL legacy. In bioscience's grand tapestry, MRL is more than just a lab; it is a celebration – a relentless pursuit of discovery and a global force for TB eradication.

Find out more about the Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology and Sanjib's work.

Professor Sanjib Bhakta FRSB is a Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Biochemistry at the Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology, a joint research institute of UCL and Birkbeck, University of London in England.