Interview Suresh Rattan – Part I and II
(May 10th, 2013) For biogerontologist, Suresh Rattan, from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, extending health-span and longevity is a matter of understanding what determines health and how to maintain it in the first place (see LT 3-2013). Read the entire interview here.
Lab Times: In your recent publications, you have argued for understanding health and finding ways of maintaining health as ageing-interventions rather than treating ageing as a disease (Biogerontology, 2012. 13:83-91; Experimental Gerontology. 2013. 48:94-98). Is this your current research topic or rather a proposal for the future? Would you like to share your views on why the current disease-perspective of health needs a change and which role biogerontology can play?
Suresh Rattan: My understanding of ageing at the biological level has been through my active research and education for more than 30 years now. This has made me realise that the issues of ageing, age-related diseases and longevity cannot be approached successfully with the prevalent biomedical approach of targeting one disease at a time and trying to either cure it or manage it at best. Ageing is not caused by anything: in the sense, not by an infectious agent or a pathogenic process or even by specific genes. Ageing happens because of evolutionary neglect – so much has been written about it by evolutionary biologists. Ageing is a progressive loss of health, at least in biological terms, and that is what we need to maintain or even recover. But we are not clear about what health is, in the first place. Even the WHO’s definition of health goes like this: “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. This is ambiguous because it introduces another word, “well-being”, without really telling what it is in biological, social and psychological terms.
LT: Quite an interesting start! But before going into more detail we have to clarify: Why “BIO-gerontology”? And are there other tags for “gerontology”?
Suresh Rattan: Well, gerontology, in general, is the study of ageing but from different points of view it can be different. At the clinical level, it is geriatrics and from the sociological point of view it is called social-gerontology; and then there is also psycho-gerontology. But the study of ageing phenotype and mechanisms at the biological level is biogerontology, irrespective of the model systems we use – fruit flies or mice or nematodes or human. Geriatrics will never deal with ageing in fruit flies, for instance. Actually, the term biogerontology only came into more regular use around 1996 or 1997. When, in 1995, I was awarded the academic degree Doctor of Science in the biology of ageing for my post-PhD research work of about 13 years done at the Aarhus University, I was able to introduce a new lecture-course in our university, with the title “Biogerontology”, which became extremely popular among students in natural science and health faculties. A few years later, in 2000, when the then Kluwer Academic Publishers (now incorporated in Springer) approached me about starting up a new journal in the field of ageing, the title Biogerontology proved to be the best one. This journal deals with both the understanding of the biological basis of ageing and novel interventions at the biological level. Before 1996 or 1997, if you go to PubMed, for example, you would never or rarely encounter the term biogerontology!
LT: The question then is how the subject of biogerontology has led you to think about health and making a change from the disease-oriented thinking?
Suresh Rattan: Well, the change comes from the understanding of biology in general and, for me, from biogerontology in particular. From the classical text books we all know about homeostasis. Homeostasis applies only when the body is considered as a static and stable machine that exists in the same state all the time. It is a mechanical concept. In the last two or so decades, we have realised that a biological system is a dynamic entity. It’s not by being in the same state but by the same dynamics that biological systems respond, adapt and survive. This is what I think led F. Eugene Yates in the 1990s to propose the term homeodynamics (Math. Comput. Modelling. 19:49-74. 1994). Changes keep happening in the biological systems that appear to keep the system apparently static. But there is not a single cell in an organism that is static. Not even a single biomolecule! From the molecular level upwards, biological systems are constantly dynamic and not the same in the next unit of time. But many scientists still stick to the concept of homeostasis and may consider biological systems as machines, which is actually an obsolete notion. I think it is a hindrance to further progress, and should be avoided.
LT: So, how does homeodynamics relate to your research? Or how does it help approaching health per se?
Suresh Rattan: In the field of ageing, several scientists, including me, think that homeodynamics is the means by which we live and exist. The idea of homeodynamics has led me to formulate the concept of a “homeodynamic space” as the survival ability or buffering capacity of the living systems, which can be the basis of understanding health, ageing and longevity. An apparently healthy child is born with a certain extent of homeodynamic space and a lot of survival mechanisms but with a significant zone of vulnerability. That is why a lot of things can go wrong quickly in infants. But further development, growth and maturation build this homeodynamic space as a sort of buffering capacity of the body. If the buffering capability works fine, we will survive; if not, we will die. Of course, things could go wrong at any age but with respect to ageing, this could be due to the shrinkage of the homeodynamic space, which happens during the period of survival beyond the essential lifespan of a species assured by evolutionary selection.
LT: How do you define the homeodynamic space of a living system?
Suresh Rattan: There are three things that I narrow down to. The number may vary according to different scientists but there are three essential characteristics, in my view. First is the stress response: how a system responds to stress and counteracts or tolerates stress at any age. Second are damage control and damage management. Life is constantly exposed to multitude of damages from internal and external causes and at all levels from molecules to cells and beyond. But very complex and complicated systems work to prevent, control, repair and remove those damages that occur in combination in our body. Damage control is an important component of the homeodynamic space. And third is constant remodelling, that is constant adaptation with respect to these damages or changes, corresponding to the age. These make the homeodynamic space and that is what health is. By the way, these three characteristics of the homeodynamic space can also be understood at the psychological and social levels!
LT: So then, what are the positive biomarkers for health?
Suresh Rattan: I don’t have a straight forward one-line answer. That is why I’m openly inviting other scientists and thinkers to come up with their ideas for a collective approach. I have tried to develop upon the stress responses from the biological point of view. And what I have listed in my publications – the seven cellular stress responses – may also not be complete. It’s a list with respect to immediate and delayed responses to stress. Stress response can be a positive biomarker for health and homeodynamics. As a biogerontologist, working with stress and ageing, I ask, what are the “healthy stress profiles”? In general, we would like to see how a cell, at any particular phenotype and age, behaves as it does. A healthy cell can have a multitude of ways of being healthy. We would like to find the range of normal profiles. Since the homeodynamic space is defined on the basis of stress-response, damage control and remodelling for each category, there will be several biochemical pathways.
LT: Is this how your research proposal has taken shape – to demonstrate health?
Suresh Rattan: Yes, from a biological point of view – or specifically, from the point of view of biogerontology – I would like to understand what are the limits of the three characteristics of the homeodynamic space and how wide is its range in healthy individuals at different ages. For me, these can be the biological determinants of health, which can be measured in a demonstrable manner. But, as I said in the beginning, I would love to hear the ideas of other scientists and thinkers as to how to proceed with this line of thinking.
LT: How do you think, social scientists (or thinkers from humanities) can contribute to define health?
Suresh Rattan: We can already define health! The issue now is to measure health in objective and demonstrable manner. In ideal terms, I define ideal or perfect health as a state of complete physical and mental independence in performing activities of daily life. This is not possible, and no one has it. As soon as we use even clothes to protect from heat and cold, or when we use spectacles to focus our vision, we have lost our independency. So, in realistic terms, what we mean by health is to have adequate physical and mental independency to lead daily life. Here, the term “adequate” is the crucial one and all we need is a set of measurable parameters at the fundamental level of biological organisation to quantify this adequacy.
So, coming to your question on how social scientists can contribute is to bring out the result in terms of adequacy in independency. An elderly person perhaps no longer wants to play competitive tennis or run around as s/he could do forty years earlier. First and foremost all s/he wants is to be able to control and perform basic bodily/hygienic functions, to take care of her/himself and to go about doing other activities in daily life with adequate independence. Adequacy is learnable, a matter of temperament, of value system and ethics. This is also very subjective, psychological and sociological. This is what we also call the quality of life, which is purely subjective. Biologically I might be perfectly healthy, if measurable. But for other reasons, the quality of my life – like being happy or creative, etc. – might be bad and vice versa! A good example is Stephen Hawking. Biologically he is clearly not healthy. But the quality of life he has for himself and for others is tremendous. This is where – if and when the sociologists and psychologists bring out the results from their research and ideas – they can contribute a lot to measure health from different angles. But, as a biologist, if I can measure health in terms of homeodynamics and homeodynamic space, this could lead to an improved personalised medicine!
LT: What are the challenges for your ideas towards personalised medicine?
Suresh Rattan: We need more markers and models to study how the three controlling factors buffer the changes in homeodynamic space. Different cells will have distinct levels of stress response at different ages or times. How to test these? Which experimental methods or technologies or model organisms can we use? These are some of the current challenges to my vision towards personalised health maintenance.
LT: We are used to knock-out or knock-down approaches in studying biology or disease mechanisms. In the light of your views it looks like this approach does not work. Am I correct?
Suresh Rattan: Knock-out does not work for a health approach. It’s an all-or-none approach we have right now. For example, if someone pushes me under a truck and sees how I die, it’s a knock-out approach. But we try to improve things and processes in biology. So, a titration approach can work. For example, how much disturbance can a body tolerate to maintain its health? To study this, we can try to introduce damage as titrations, say, in 10%, 20%, etc. This is called allostasis or allostatic load – the level of damage control/management. From this we shall see how the systems respond so as to maintain health. By doing so, we will compete with evolutionary selection ‘forces’. Improving something in a pre-ageing body system might have some trade-offs evolutionarily. Otherwise, evolution might have slowed down, or avoided the process of ageing. This is where the damage control concept comes into work. Thus, by this approach, one can keep on having functionality without rushing to death or becoming clinically dependent.
LT: How do you think such studies will involve people? Invasive or non-invasive methods?
Suresh Rattan: What our lab and many such labs do are to work with cell lines or animal models. But we need to work more with normal humans. So far, we do not have a set of biochemical standards to measure health. So, there should be possibilities for several non-invasive methods. For instance, can we develop a stress profile kit or a strip that can be put into the mouth to get information from saliva – to get results on one’s stress response ability (or level) at that particular time point? Can there be recommendations from those results, like what is the healthy range of stress response profile for that person? This might be one of the technologies to come out of this kind of research! Research is also in progress, for instance, on daily life activities that are matched with functionality. For example, measuring the speed of walking, and some other measures of functionality, seems to correlate with the perspective of one’s dying in the next two to three years at the physiological level.
LT: Don’t you think that even the non-invasive methods will lead to ethical issues?
Suresh Rattan: Quite possibly, I don’t deny that. It is the same with any medical research. But we have to promote health to people and tell them what the benefits are of this research. We must not frighten them – if you don’t do this, you will get breast cancer and have to eat broccoli for the rest of your life. No! We can’t do that. The question is to sell health – that “drugs” can be taken to promote health. It is like “teaching ethics by being good per se; not teaching ethics by terror”. To involve healthy people for such studies requires reformulation of ethical rules. At an individual level, some incentives might be needed. People need to be educated through the revised biomedical ethics. I must admit, however, that I haven’t thought much about it yet!
LT: Do you have more opponents or supporters of your concept? And what do you expect for the future?
Suresh Rattan: I feel a great support from people as we talk about health. But my job will be easier, when ethical committees agree on this approach. The chances of side effects from this health approach, to stay healthy as such, seem to be very little so far. I think this could be handled relatively easier than the opponents. Opposition could arise from the conventional, disease-oriented researchers, as they require a change in their way of thinking. It will also depend upon the structural organisation of the visionary centres and the decision-makers for grants. The interesting thing is that social scientists are already writing about health from this view, for example, Colin Farrelly (EMBO Reports.13(3):2012) and James Shelton (Nature. 493:453, 2013) but not so many experimental biologists are taking this route yet. I would also like to stress the fact that there are ministries of health, departments and faculties of health - but there is practically no research on understanding what health is!
LT: Okay, let’s move on to something else. How is your experience as the editor-in-chief of the journal Biogerontology? Can you share some behind the scenes experiences?
Suresh Rattan: Interesting and a good move, indeed! Because it’s run by a company, it has its own usual economic limitations. But we do not charge anyone for publication. It’s a strictly peer-reviewed journal. I should say I have the support of the big publisher who does not measure the success of the journal by money alone. So, in general, it has been a wonderful experience for the past 13 years, to run the journal. I’m able to see the direction of experimentation and data flow in the field and also, to a reasonable extent, have an influence on them. I am able to promote novel and speculative ideas, even if somebody does not have immediate evidence. This is one of the special features of our journal that it is quite progressive and open towards risky research than many other journals. We do not wait or push scientists for an extensive or a complete study, to wait for years, for a small paper. Rather, we quickly pick up the latest trends in the field so that it can lead to further experimentation.
I also highly admire those scientists who provide free services to evaluate the submitted manuscripts for publication. It’s a rather time-consuming and selfless job to do! On an average we receive about 120-130 manuscripts per year and are able to finalise up to 50-60 papers for publication – making a 50-60% acceptance rate. There is no money involved in this process – we do not pay the writers or reviewers.
LT: Recently, there have been talks about pay-per-peer review to create a more stringent system on the reviewing system. Rumours on this refer to the recent rise of paper retractions. Are there any retractions in your journal?
Suresh Rattan: There has not been even a single paper retracted in the last 13 years! Sometimes we get complaints about missing citations – usual with publications – from the non-cited authors! In some unfortunate instances, some senior authors can be very pushy that they have been successful for so many years and we should not dare to raise any questions against them. This kind of authoritarianism upsets me and puts me in bad situations, where I have to either explain to them and/or reason with them, about why we have had to reject the manuscript! Other than this, I haven’t had any bad experiences.
LT: What other unique experiences or qualities does the journal have – on you or on science, in general?
Suresh Rattan: I’m more of an introvert. But the journal has made me more outward-going and interact with older and younger generations of scientists, which I’m happy about - honestly! Two things that I can be proud of about running the journal, as an editor-in-chief: bringing a younger generation of scientists into the editorial board, like fresh post-doctoral researchers, or those with three to five years of postdoc experience, besides having senior researchers for several known reasons! On an average, the age-profile of scientists on our editorial board is much younger than in any other journal. I personally approached some senior scientists who were already well established and were members of the editorial boards of various other journals. I wanted them to point out at least one person from their circle “who was ready for the next generation”. Most of these scientists have been very nice and generous in pointing so and so young members of the board. But I’ve also been criticised for these moves because I’ve chosen numbers two or three in their list, not number one. So our journal is training and nurturing the next generation of biogerontologists.
Another important decision that I made was, wherever I had the choice, I’ve tried to include women scientists in our editorial board. That might, sometimes, even be unfair to some men but when we do not see many women on editorial boards of journals, except the ones who are already ‘famous’, I wanted to bring in this group of scientists. So, Biogerontology now has more than 33% of women on its editorial board. This is not a common example seen in scientific journals.
LT: How well are you ageing yourself? What has ageing research taught you emotionally?
Suresh Rattan: At the biological level, the genetic hand of cards dealt to me by virtue of genetic recombination, does not look like it is of very high quality. And I don’t think I did much to strengthen my homeodynamic space during my younger days. So, biologically, things are going wrong in the normal course of time. But what I have learned from science and have developed in my temperament is not to deny the fact of my biological limitations. I can’t delude myself and hope to live for 5,000 years, and so on... So, the acceptance of ageing and death is very important to live properly. I’ll not deny my age. I won’t say, at the age of 72 that “No! No! I’m actually 27!” This is not true! You can’t be 27 when you are 72. If you think in those denials, then both your biology and psychology will collapse. So, that way, I’m ageing very nicely, gracefully and positively; and I accept my life. Although, mentally, it looks like we all stop ageing from the age of 40, when evolution actually starts the ageing process, biologically. It seems that our minds do not visualise that we grow old beyond 40 or 45, at all further ages. Of course it is in the absence of any serious disease that the mind stops ageing when the body begins to age!
LT: So, is this mental negligence also part of shrinkage of homeodynamic space?
Suresh Rattan: Interestingly, the shrinkage of mental homeodynamic space appears to happen very slowly. It’s the biological homeodynamic space that gets messed up! Even evolution has not left any resources for longer lifespan. Evolution keeps a system alive, for only one purpose in life – the Darwinian purpose – reproduction! That’s what we call the essential lifespan. That’s under the genetic control for a species. At the same time, evolution does not seem to have any clear system determining that, after the essential system, the individual has to die immediately. Evolution allows you to live but then, things will go wrong. That’s where the homeodynamic space that evolution gives for essential lifespan (for humans this is only for 40 years) has to be maintained by ourselves.
LT: Has anyone tested your shrinkage of homeodynamic space in, for example, primates? To compare evolutionarily, with us?!
Suresh Rattan: No. The problem is we don’t know what and how to measure. There are some articles on the effect of stress on comparative lifespan among various species, like with respect to DNA repair and protein removal. There is always a correlation between the quality of the repair system and the longevity of the species – the better the repair system, the greater longevity the species could have! All these scattered results suggest that it is the damage and repair systems that determine crucially the survival. Only very few labs have tried to compare these effects among different species under the same lab conditions and at the same time. If our visionary centre on health comes into existence, this could be one of the projects!
LT: Okay! Then if you are given full freedom, would you do this kind of basic research on ageing – for instance, the role of evolution?!
Suresh Rattan: Definitely. Comparative and evolutionary biogerontology is very important to understand ageing, in general. But because we are mostly human-centric, we have to do something about human beings, too. Evolutionary reasons are definitely necessary – for example, why is there a difference in this essential lifespan among species? I would like to understand the evolutionary aspects but I don’t see simple solutions for healthy ageing resulting from studies, for example, on naked mole rats or bats, those which have exceptionally longer lifespan; or some people who have lived long – to get some magic answers from them!! I’m not very excited about that kind of work. Instead, I’d be interested in knowing, in terms of shrinkage of the homeodynamic space, what makes you and me more or less healthier, and why older people are much more prone to dying from, e.g. slight changes in temperature; and whether those mechanisms in the healthier counterparts can be suitably improved in the ageing population!
LT: Quite inspiring! I think our readers would also be curious to know how you ended up as a biogerontologist in Denmark. By choice or chance?
Suresh Rattan: A mixture of both indeed! Like many students, I became inspired not just because of the subject but due to the teachers who taught the subject. During my school and college days in Amritsar, India, I was used to thinking on a larger scale in philosophical terms. I come from a family of musicians and philosophers. Thus, I grew up in a thought-provoking environment, in general. But it was because of three teachers, in particular, that I’m here now. The first seed of inspiration came from my BSc/MSc teacher, Suraj Sharma, at Guru Nanak Dev University, who at that time had just come back from America, after researching in ageing. I was fascinated by his personality, humanity and him, as a good teacher. I wanted to do whatever he taught. Also, ageing was intuitively attracting me. Consequently, I did a theoretical BSc project on the role of lysosomes in ageing. We were able to publish it in an Indian journal. It was a great feedback. That was the encouragement towards a larger goal. He also inspired me how to be a good human being besides a good teacher.
Then, at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, I did MPhil – a study between MSc and PhD. I did my project with Sivatosh Mookherjee, a philosopher-like scientist, who was specialising in the regenerative abilities of the coelenterate, Hydra. I studied regeneration in Hydra and later on, its ageing. More than the system, I also learned to think in larger, evolutionary terms – how does this study shed light on human ageing? Thus he inspired me to synthesise [knowledge in] biology at all levels.
I then went to the UK, supported by a British Council Fellowship, in 1979, where I did my PhD, with Robin Holliday, who is known for his discovery of the “Holliday junctions”. At that time, he was working on cellular ageing of human cells, testing the error theory of ageing, and that is when my full commitment commenced towards ageing research. Robin Holliday inspired me to be a critical and rigorous experimental biologist.
LT: How did you come to Denmark?
Suresh Rattan: Like most other fresh Indian postdocs, I also wanted to go to the USA but the American embassy in India did not grant me a visa. At about the same time, Professor Brian Clark, a molecular and structural biologist, was setting up a new lab here in Aarhus, with a grant from a small biotech company, to work on ageing and anti-ageing, and so we found each other!! I was given almost full responsibility and independence to set up this new lab – right from getting chairs and tables to buying flow hoods, incubators and microscopes. Since then, for almost 30 years now, the making or breaking of my whole career has centred on our Laboratory of Cellular Ageing. This has helped me to develop my original ideas, through research, teaching and supervising students.
LT: How is your experience there so far – as a teacher, researcher and a foreigner?
Suresh Rattan: Many things have changed in the ways of doing scientific research and running a university in the past 25-30 years. Despite these reasons, running a lab in a university environment has suited my temperament. I think university labs are the places where we create the next generation of scientists. It’s not just teaching them to do a particular method or technique but also to make them think in a scientific way. But is there also a scientific way to make them good human beings, besides being good scientists?!... My passion has been to train students to make them complete scientists, not mere technocrats. But for many reasons, many labs do not run this way. Also, the reward system is on producing technocrats who can do things, even if they are unable to relate it to bigger issues – like life or societal or even emotional issues. I am often put down by the powers-that-be, who feel that when I spend time with the public and children, I am wasting time. They think I’m doing popular science. Many such people measure scientists on different scales – like success in generating grants or goal-oriented or product/patent developing research – not only on the commercial side but also in the university set up. Such systems expect those brilliant minds to be managers and technicians, who could, in fact, think bigger.
LT: How are you sustaining as a successful researcher? Do you think you are successful?
Suresh Rattan: I think yes! Not by others’ scales, of course. Although the product/money-oriented research works most of the time for most of the people, I have been trying to develop my ideas at a wholistic level (not in a hocus-pocus way) – at a biological/physiological end point – or in other words, at a phenotype level. For example, one idea that I have been testing and developing further is that of hormesis, a wholistic intervention…
LT: Can you please elaborate on that, what is hormesis?
Suresh Rattan: We often talk about stress that it is bad. But how much stress is bad? Constant stress, which is not under our control, is definitely bad. When stress is of your choice and if you are able to manage the chosen stress, it is always found to be good. This is the phenomenon of hormesis. Physical exercise is the best example. Nowadays, almost everybody accepts that exercise, done at a moderate level, is good.
In the field of ageing, my lab is one of the first few labs, which started applying this idea of hormesis and then modifying it. And now, we are going in the direction of discovering hormetins – that is the hormesis-inducing substances/processes in physical, mental and nutritional terms. Lots of things we eat in the food are eventually good, just because they are initially bad. For example, almost all the spices, ginger, garlic, onions, curcumin and other herbs, which don’t have any nutritional value in terms of proteins, carbohydrates and so on, are potentially hormetins. They challenge the cells by slightly damaging them and then the homeodynamics of the body naturally takes over, to gain the benefit, like physical exercise. Thus, they are good because, at the biochemical level, these are bad! If you take away the free radicals produced during physical exercise by providing anti-oxidants, etc, then one loses the benefit of exercise. The good effect is because of hormesis and it has been my passion for the last ten years.
But the reductionist approach in science puts so much pressure on one mechanism at a time, which is why I think many drug candidates fail in the end. Because when one mechanism is controlled, another mechanism takes over or maybe the other way around. So, one has to handle the phenotype first, especially when we want to promote health. I’m trying to teach this kind of thinking to my students.
LT: What is the take of the students you have met so far? Do they like your approach? How do they approach you for research?
Suresh Rattan: With nearly 30 years of experience in handling students at different levels – of about 25 masters theses, ten PhD theses and several bachelor projects – nearly 75% of the students who have worked with me, have been inspired by this approach. The rest got upset. They managed to complete but were reluctant. But in general, students who have similar thoughts to mine – they do approach me. After a long time being around in this university, many people seem to know what kind of attitude I have [towards teaching and research]. But I have experienced three types of students who approach me.
LT: Who are they, if you wish to tell?
Suresh Rattan: Well! Some of the students who approach me are exclusively technically oriented – “I want to do cloning!” Okay! But on what? They haven’t thought about that. They are just fascinated by cloning. Or to do RT-PCR, for example. I tell them that this is not the way my lab works. We use a technique to answer a question and then, wherever we find [new or relevant] techniques, we use them. So, I don’t hate any techniques. I love them - but I cannot define my question according to a technique. Such students quickly get my message: to move on!
Another category looks at whether I have more money for them, so that they can be stable, or can go around the world with that money. That has upset a lot of people. I don’t want to run huge labs. I only want small groups, where I can remember the names of the students and their projects, and deal with them.
There’s another interesting category of students that has recently emerged. The “We want to go to China or Spain”-type. So, they search for labs that can already give them the hope of being sent to such countries. And those students will be ready to do whatever projects are available. I get easily upset by such requests. In the last year, I got five or six such requests expressing the wish during their working period to go to China. When I ask, “Well, what’s there in China?” I am answered, “That’s where the future is!” Everything happens there for the rest of the world – it does not matter whether they work on ageing or crystallography or protein aggregation.
LT: So, this is with respect to students. How do you manage the money?
Suresh Rattan: Oh dear! That’s a difficult question. That’s the problem. I have to find money through various channels. Of course, our lab has been getting some national and international research grants, but most of the work has been supported by private companies. For example, during my first 22 years or so with Brian Clark, our lab was dependent on the money from a US-based biotech company and some of our work on the anti-ageing effects of kinetin and zeatin was eventually developed into various skin care products. More recently, I have been advising some cosmetic companies that develop anti-ageing products based on some of my ideas, and have been giving small grants, for example a PhD fellowship or so. Of course I keep writing research proposals for grants, and maybe they will be successful.
LT: Oh! Also commercialising your research?! In that sense, how real or fake are the commercial anti-ageing products on the market – be it food or cosmetics?
Suresh Rattan: Well, objectively, these products keep the economy going. They are not doing anything special at the biological level in normal healthy people. But for those who are deficient in, for example, anti-oxidants, some products could help. Otherwise, this is a passageway for the circulation of money! This is the measure of wealth, more than health. But subjectively, use of these products keeps people good and young – not biologically but by other factors, say, more predominantly, psychologically...
LT: Is this a placebo effect?
Suresh Rattan: Maybe, yes and no. But what are the biochemical and molecular bases of placebos and feeling good? That is what I would like to find out. If millions of people feel good about using some products or methods such as cosmetics or massage or yoga or other approaches, then we need to find objective measures of explaining those effects. That way we can sort out what is totally wrong and misguided – from what may be open to test and scientific evaluation.
LT: Let’s hope so... But then, how do you vouch for the anti-ageing effect of the commercial products with reference to your opening statement?
Suresh Rattan: I look at their cell culture data, if any, and vouch only for the principle at the cellular level. But we do not know whether there is the same effect at the biological/phenotypical level. Generally, I talk only about the biology. But not a single word about the product or the brand per se! In promoting people’s sense of wellness or wellbeing, cosmetic industries have, I think, thus become important, besides promoting the economy.
LT: How open are you to using some ideas from modern medical science, for example, regenerative medicine, in terms of measuring health? Especially, nowadays when there are talks about 3D printing of cells or organs, etc...
Suresh Rattan: Yes! I am aware of 3D-skin. And I’m sure it’s a big area that we can apply. But all I have to be concerned or worried about is how we can use those modern principles and techniques to measure health, as such, and approach health from the health perspective, but not from the disease perspective! Yes, I am definitely all ears to the ideas in this line of thought! I would like to invite scientists from these kinds of fields – from Europe or anywhere in the world – when I further improve my proposal! In that sense, I like Lab Times because you encourage scientists around Europe to collaborate with other related or interested scientists.
LT: Thank you for the compliments! From your website, we see that you are inspired by art and literature. Also, you seem to contribute to these fields...
Suresh Rattan: Yes, I am inspired by art intuitively as well as by my family. I have even learned to play one of the Indian drums, the Tabla. I have friends around the world with whom I talk, interact and have also managed to play the Tabla in a new-age jazz band. More recently, also in a Reggae band. The same goes for the inspiration in literature. Right from my childhood, I’ve been inspired by my family and I have been an avid reader of literature. Probably that, in addition to my innate passion towards science, moved me to write a book after the demise of my father. That resulted in a book for children that I originally wrote in my mother-tongue, Punjabi, to let my emotions flow through the pipelines of the science I do. The book has been, or is being, translated into other Indian and European languages, such as Hindi, Polish and Romanian. In English it is titled as “Where is Baba Gone?” This novella tries to answer the questions of a teenage girl about life, ageing and death, in a highly scientific, yet in an emotionally fulfilling manner.
LT: Would you like to write more literary works?
Suresh Rattan: Yes, indeed! In fact, I would feel even more satisfied if I could write more books for children than the 200+ research papers that I have variedly produced. This can also be a self-imposed test – whether I can communicate with fresh, curious, challenging and inquisitive growing minds. Especially, I would like to inspire them with my scientific value system – ethics through science – because I hate religions. I am not just simply an atheist! Through the Baba book, I try to convey the message on how to deal with emotional and social issues through science. That’s very important for me. If I get more time, resources and encouragement, I’d like to write more books for children. But right now, I am seriously thinking about possible research strategies for objectively understanding health in measurable and demonstrable terms. I want other scientists too, to think about health per se.
Interview: Vijay Shankar Balakrishnan
Photos: University of Aarhus