Prelude To Avestagenome Project Webinar

Our community’s leading medical luminary, Dr. Keki Edulji Turel commands 47 years of expertise in neurosurgery and is a Consultant Neurosurgeon, Prof. Emeritus, Dept of Neurosurgery at the Bombay Hospital Institute of Medical Sciences. Known for his compassionate outlook towards his patients, Dr. Keki Turel is the Managing Trustee at Mumbai Institute of Neurosciences and the Chairman, WFNS Committee on ‘Complications in Neurosurgery’. He has held leading positions in several prestigious medical associations including the Neurological Society of India, Academia Eurasiana Neurochirurgica, Indian Medical Association, Associations of Surgeons of India, etc. 

In this article, Dr. Turel provides a prelude to the much-awaited Webinar titled, ‘Our Genes | Our Future – Unravelling The Ancient Zoroastrian-Parsi Genome’, which he will be moderating, alongside speaker, Dr. Villoo Patell, on 18th July, 2020, at 8:30 pm (IST).

The Parsi community is said to be the richest amongst the minorities, not only in India but in the entire world. From nearly a lakh in 1941, our population has dropped to sixty-one thousand in 2011 in India, and despite being just one to over twenty-one thousand Indians, we have been pioneers in banking, industry, trade and business, and some of the leading lights in professions including law, commerce, education and medicine.

Parsis immigrated essentially from Persia after the Arab invasion in the 8th century, in order to save their religious, ethnic and cultural identity. Their acceptance on Gujarat soil by the wise and benevolent local Rana (ruler) is now folklore. Along with them came the exclusive Parsi genes. Fire, being central to their worship of Ahura Mazda makes smoking taboo, purely on religious grounds. Science has now proven that tobacco contains carcinogens and has other health hazards too. Us Parsis are fortunate, for this religious forbiddance has saved us from suffering cancer of the lung, mouth and the food pipe. 

Smoke Free World Foundation (SFWF), in New York, USA, has collaborated with Avesthagen Ltd, a research organization, founded and chaired by scientist and entrepreneur – Dr. Villoo Morawala Patell. She earned PhD from France in 1993; her lab there was one of the first to discover and develop RNA editing implants, and post transcripting silencing of genes. She returned to India, but needing finance to support her quest for research, she changed gears to reach Bangalore, where she joined Rockefeller Lab (which would only fund research in Agriculture) and succeeded in growing genetically modified rice to fight drought. 

In 1998, she established Avesthagen Ltd, a global systems biology innovation company uniquely positioned to help solve some of the world’s biggest world challenges, serving the life science – food – pharmaceutical markets, converging them to play the larger game of Biotechnology, an area where the world’s health science seems to be moving. Her research aims at studying how Zoroastrian-Parsi (Z-P) may help scientists characterize biomarkers predictive of diseases caused by tobacco, such as lung, head, neck and oesophagus cancers, and identifying genetic indicators of these cancers. This and many such researches undertaken by Avesthagen will be discussed during a 45 min webinar with Dr. Villoo on 18th July, 2020, at 08:30 PM.

Though small, Z-P community is a unique model of study due to its endogamous practice, which grants it a certain genetic purity but also results in its shrinkage. Parsis are known for their sociable nature, zest for life and humor, better educational status and empowerment of women. Good nutrition and love for good things in life may have supported the genes of seemingly robust health and longevity. But with long life comes old age problems viz arthritis, osteoporosis and susceptibility to fractures, and Neuro-degenerative diseases such as dementia and Parkinson’s disease (PD). Though not related to old age, Breast Cancer is also prevalent in the Parsi genes.

Everything exists in your genes. What are genes? They are part of your cells – the fundamental, structural and functional units of living organisms. Did you know that the human body consists of 37 trillion cells of 50 different types? Microbial cells (bacteria) outnumber human cells 10 times. 1 million cells die every second but are constantly replenished during health. The cell is likened to a raw egg – the yellow of it is a spheroid body called nucleus, and the egg white to cytoplasm. Nucleus contains chromosomes, a structure which contains a linear thread of DNA. The latter is a molecule that contains the instructions an organism needs to develop, live and reproduce. These instructions are found inside every cell and are passed down from parents to their children by the genes contained in it. The genes are a distinct sequence of DNA, forming part of a chromosome and located at a definite position on a particular chromosome. Genetic, therefore means inherited, and pertains to reproduction, birth or origin. The complete set of genetic material along with factors contained in chromosomes is called a Genome, and the genetic makeup of an individual organism, a Genotype.

Likened to the white of an egg is cytoplasm, it contains small, spherical or rod shaped structures (organelles) called Mitochondria (Mc). They are the principle sites of ATP synthesis (providing energy to a cell), contain their own DNA and replicate independently.

The Avestagenome Project reveals that we were separated from Iran a thousand years ago and the diseases Z-P / Iranis suffer are the same as five hundred years ago. The project has identified 420 Mc variants in the hundred Z-P genomes from blood samples of 4500 Parsi individuals. Mc variants and gene expression picked from this study can be implemented to tailor treatments for cancers, Neurodegenerative and other rare diseases. Considerable research is in the pipeline, and a lot more needs to be done to have solid and reliable results of Parsi inheritance and its future.

Intermarriages (comprising a staggering 38% of all marriages in 2010) are going to throw new challenges as would inter-ethnic variation. Male sperm comes with nuclear material, whilst the egg (of the female) comes with both nuclear and mitochondrial genes. Dating depends on mitochondrial data, the study of which takes us to our Persian ancestry. A Parsi child carries the pure Parsi genes or genetic material from the mother, and even if she marries a non-Parsi, the child will still carry Parsi genes. Thus, banning the children of Parsi women marring outside is unscientific. Our community is shrinking, and by not allowing the children of Parsi mothers marrying outside will only add to the dwindling numbers. Understandably this will shake the orthodox, but a dispassionate and scientific approach will enhance our Parsi potential. This, of course should not encourage our Parsi girls to marry outside. Where otherwise will the Parsi gentlemen go? Marry outside? This will inflict a double blow to the strength and future of our blessed and unique community.

Research needs huge funding. Avesta genome project is looking at a modest sum of 100 million dollars (Rs. 700 cores). This will enable setting up of a Bio-bank which will investigate blood samples, establish cell lines and perform Liquid Biopsy tests enabling early diagnosis of cancers much before symptoms appear or even imaging can sight the abnormal process. This will also enable free diagnostics as well as medicines for all Parsis. Though one is looking at grants from large international groups, our big Parsi businesses and philanthropists could certainly lighten the burden. 

An international Webinar, ‘Our Genes, Our Future – Unraveling the Ancient Zoroastrian-Parsi Genome’, organized by Meher Bhesania on behalf of WZCC (Dubai Chapter) will be live on Saturday, 18th July, 8:30 pm. Speaker: Dr Villoo Morawala-Patell, Founder- Chairperson, Avesthagen Ltd., Bangalore. Moderator: Dr Keki Turel, Chairman Emeritus, Neurosurgery, Bombay Hospital, Mumbai.

Link: https//zoom/j/8487251418.


Leave a Reply