BENGALURU: When there was an emergency abortion in the middle of the night at AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences), Delhi, Dr Vinoda Kochupillai would always be alerted. She would come running from home to collect the foetus, take it to the lab, dissect the liver out and preserve the organ in an ice cube filled bag.
While this might sound strange to many, this was part of her research that went on to become a pioneer study in the field of foetal stem cell transplantation program. When Vinoda completed her cancer medicine training in USA and joined AIIMS in the 70s, she was young and enthusiastic.
“I came across many patients in their late teens and 20s, suffering from Aplastic Anaemia. This is a life threatening condition where the bone marrow does not function. It does not form white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets. There were so many deaths. I was frustrated and was desperately looking for ways to help,” says the now retired head of the AIIMS Cancer Centre.
While reading an article from France, about a scientist who used foetal liver cells to treat another condition, she spotted a last line that spoke about how these cells can also be used for Aplastic Anaemia.
“I held onto that last bit and began experimenting. In the womb, it is the liver and not bone marrow that creates cells,” she says.
During her initial treatment using this new method, six of ten patients, got better and two were cured. She facilitated this research with money from her own pocket. An author of 185 research papers, she turned a 30-bed cancer centre to a seven-story building with cancer management, research and other oncology related departments. She set up and retired as the institute’s head of medical oncology as well.
Her 32 years at the institute was a jugglery. “There were times when I worked for 12 hours, reported at night - all while I had two kids. If one needed to be fed, the other had to be changed. In all this I caught only two to three hours of sleep before work,” says the now 73-year-old director of Sri Sri Institute of Advanced Research, Bengaluru.
The obstacles in performing her research while managing other responsibilities took a toll on her health. “A fellow doctor also complained against me, calling me a murder for experimenting with foetal liver cells. This was one of the smaller hurdles,” she adds.
Start of new chapter
She believes she would have ended up in the psychiatric ward, if she was not introduced to Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living foundation and learnt Sudarshan Kriya, a breathing technique. Her research thereafter focused on proving the benefits of the exercise.
“In a project with UNESCO, I presented research findings related to Sudarshan Kriya and Pranayama at Sri Lanka in 2003. I met several 18 to 20-year-olds who were mentally disturbed due to the ongoing civil war in that country,” she describes, further adding, “They watched their home burn and lost their family members. I could see bullet marks on the walls of their house. Once they went through the Kriya, they came out happier.”
Retired IPS officer Kiran Bedi invited her to conduct similar research on police trainees undergoing mental and physical stress. “After 5 months, those youngsters who practised the exercise had lesser blood lactate. A stressed person, has increased blood lactate. The experimental group had higher anti-oxidants, which help prevent oxidative damage,” she says. She has presented her findings at 30 conferences in India, Germany, Netherlands, and other countries.