Indian researcher’s work in Australia holds hope for wild cats

Deep Saxena, Hindustan Times
Lucknow, November 10, 2011

First Published: 19:20 IST(10/11/2011)
Last Updated: 19:26 IST(10/11/2011)

Cats may mythically have nine lives, but wild cats — pushed to the brink of extinction — have not been as lucky by any stretch of imagination. Indian PhD student Rajneesh Verma’s work in Australia, however, holds the promise of a fresh lease of life for endangered species, primarily wild cats.

Verma, 32, born and brought up in Lucknow, has created embryonic stem-like (ES-like) cells from a snow leopard’s ear tissue. His ES-like cells have the capability of creating life without extracting fertilised eggs (sperms and egg) from the animal.

Verma believes he can in due course of time create life through IVF (in-vitro fertilisation) because his ES-like cells “have the potential to form any other cell type of the body — egg and sperm”.

He conducted his research at Monash Institute of Medical Research, Melbourne, on the snow leopard, Bengal tiger, jaguar and the serval (African wild cat).

The cells created by Rajneesh holds promise for endangered snow leopards.The university has validated his research and a prominent science journal in the US is publishing it later this week. Subsequently, the university will have a global release of the research.

In May, Study Melbourne, the Victoria government’s official website, had noted the progress of Verma’s research under the title ‘Technology adds a tenth life to endangered cats’.

Verma told HT from Australia, “Hailing from India, loving tigers and the cat family comes to me naturally.” His work involves non-invasive technology called Induced Pluripotent Stem cells.

According to Verma, extracting eggs and sperm for cloning is a gruelling process. “Take the case of the tiger. Who will allow experiment with endangered species? Complicated surgeries are needed to get the eggs and sperm for IVF or cloning. Extracting them is a very painful process for the animal.”

PhD student Rajneesh Verma Verma has created cells from snow-leopard ear tissue that can create life without extracting fertilised eggs from the animal.The PhD student who did his schooling from Lucknow’s City Montessori School and Class XII from Colvin Taluqdars’ College wants to bring his work to India. “This project is on wild cats, but since the population of our national animal tiger is depleting fast, I want to come down to open a research centre.”

His elder brother Maneesh Verma, who owns Dreamworld Water Park in Lucknow, said, “He tried to start the project here, but, due to the high cost and infrastructure involved, Australia was a better option.”

Uma Shanker, chief conservator of forests, Jhansi, said, “Rajneesh has briefed me on the outline of the project. Let it be announced internationally. Then we may take it forward as per government protocol.”

A guarded approach by experts is evident amid the excitement surrounding Verma’s work.

Upasna, a researcher from Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, Darjeeling, which pioneers snow leopard breeding in the country, said, “Creating life with embryonic stem cell is possible and can be done with egg and sperm through IVF. Until the research report comes I can’t say anything.”

An email to Monash Institute remained unanswered.