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A match made in India

Daniel Weisdorf, M.D., and Kumar Belani, M.D. (Photo: Jim Bovin)

U doctor embraces his role initiating a thriving medical partnership with India

International scientific collaboration doesn’t happen by accident — especially in India. “Working in India is about relationships and treating people well,” says Kumar Belani, M.D., a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Anesthesiology and assistant vice president of India affairs in the Academic Health Center.

In the past decade, Belani — a native of Bangalore, India — has become a matchmaker, cultivating relationships between University faculty and scientists working in India. His efforts have led to a number of fruitful research collaborations, and in 2011 he received the University’s Global Engagement Award in recognition of his work.

One project that Belani helped to initiate is a flourishing research and clinical care partnership between the University’s world-renowned blood and marrow transplantation (BMT) program and Manipal Hospital in Bangalore.

The project, begun in 2006 and led by Daniel Weisdorf, M.D., professor of medicine and director of the University’s adult BMT program, initially focused on educational and training opportunities but now includes scientific collaborations aimed at improving tissue matching for BMT patients of Indian descent.

Building a partnership

The idea started when Belani arranged for a group of University of Minnesota physicians to visit Manipal Hospital in 2004. “It’s one of the flagship hospitals in India,” he says. “They had one weakness — they didn’t do bone marrow transplants.”

Following that visit, physicians and nurses from Manipal Hospital visited the University in 2006 to observe its acclaimed BMT practice firsthand.

“They spent time in the BMT unit. They saw the practice, protocols, and setup,” says Belani. These visits, along with regular meetings with Weisdorf via teleconference, helped Manipal Hospital develop transplant protocols.

Using the University program as a model, the hospital created its own BMT unit, which was recently expanded to four rooms and has completed more than 75 transplants since the program began in 2006.

Growing research

As he learned about BMT in India, Weisdorf discovered that for people of South Asian descent, there are limited data about HLA haplotype tissue, which is central to tissue-type matching. This lack of information makes it difficult to find a non-family marrow donor match in India.

“We have less success than we would like in finding donors [for people of Indian descent],” Weisdorf says. “A brother and sister have a one-in-four chance of a match, and the chances go down for people who are unrelated.” In comparison, northern or western Europeans have a 75 percent chance of finding a suitable donor.

“This becomes a challenge in India because of the lack of an HLA haplotype tissue registry,” says Belani.

Tissue matching is even more difficult in India, he says, because its people have complex cultural and genetic histories. Also, a number of diseases that could be treated with BMT — such as aplastic anemia or thalassemia — are more common in Indian and Mediterranean populations.

In 2011 Weisdorf received funding from the Academic Health Center and the Indian Council for Medical Research Collaboration to study tissue matching with 12 medical centers in India and the U.S. National Bone Marrow Donor Program, which runs the Be The Match donor registry.

“The collaborating Indian transplant centers are supplying tissue-type data on patients and family members, specifying state of origin, language, and cultural group data,” Weisdorf says. The data will be analyzed this summer. One possible outcome could be the development of a model for an Indian BMT donor registry.

Weisdorf says he wants to answer this question: “Would we be able to find donors more efficiently for Indian patients living in the U.S. if we searched an Indian registry?”

Making it possible

Weisdorf is quick to credit Belani for helping to make the right connections to get this work going and keep it moving. “It doesn’t happen by accident,” he says.

“[Belani] has been very good about helping with the social connections needed to meet people. This matchmaking has turned into a medical exchange, a scientific exchange, to get these projects going, and a clinical exchange with people coming here for treatment.”

Belani, who travels to India several times a year, frequently hosts Indian visitors to the University of Minnesota as well. It’s all part of maintaining good relationships, which help to spur future collaborations and raise the University’s profile abroad, says Belani, who shares credit with Weisdorf and many other colleagues who have helped the project thrive.

“Now almost every scientific place in India knows about the University of Minnesota,” he says proudly.

By Robyn White, associate director of editorial services at the Minnesota Medical Foundation

To support the University’s medical and public health partnership with India, contact Adam Buhr at 612-626-2391 or a.buhr@mmf.umn.edu.

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