Homeward bound purpose

International Auburn student researching rabies treatment for home country and beyond

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Growing up, Jyoti Yadav was no stranger to a key carrier of one of the world’s deadliest viruses.

Packs of stray dogs — the carriers — remain common throughout Yadav’s home country of India to this day and were often found in her neighborhood. The deadly virus — rabies — is prevalent in India and is almost exclusively passed to humans by way of a dog bite, becoming fatal nearly 100% of the time the moment symptoms appear.

“India has an enormous burden of rabies virus,” Yadav said. “If we look at the numbers, almost one third of the total worldwide rabies cases are reported in India, 97% of which is caused by stray dogs. India has reported about 62 million stray dogs across the country, which — if we put into perspective — is almost double the population of California. Since stray dogs are one of the primary sources of the rabies transmission, it is a significant problem.”

It's a deadly threat that Yadav has been committed to treating, and to accomplish her goal, she found a strong and supportive partner many miles away from her home: Auburn University.

A home away from home partner

“Auburn has offered me the perfect space and opportunity to try to make a real impact in whatever small manner I can and gave me a sense of purpose all while nurturing the little researcher in me,” said Yadav, an Auburn graduate student whose doctoral project is focused on a gene therapy for rabies. “I have been very lucky to be able to receive and use all of the many resources offered here at Auburn and am enjoying an unwavering amount of positive support from every single person in my lab. I really feel grateful for being here and working among such passionate people. It inspires me every day.”

Yadav works under the guidance of Dr. Doug Martin, director of Auburn’s Scott-Ritchey Research Center in the College of Veterinary Medicine and a professor in the Department of Anatomy, Physiology and Pharmacology. Yadav said she first learned about Auburn from a friend, and as she researched the university she became further intrigued while reading news stories about Martin’s great work in the treatment of GM1 gangliosidosis — an inherited disorder that progressively destroys nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. A gene therapy treatment for GM1 was created at Auburn’s College of Veterinary Medicine and the University of Massachusetts Medical School, which together collaborated with the National Institutes of Health to move the research into helping children suffering from the disease, with the first child receiving a one-dose treatment in 2019 and showing remarkable results since.

“Upon reading some of the astounding work done by Dr. Martin and his group — needless to say — I was very impressed, like everyone else,” she said. “Just only a few weeks prior, my mother had told me tragic stories about stray dog bites and rabies cases impacting my dad’s base of operations at the time. So, when I started working in Dr. Martin’s lab, I soon realized that gene therapy for rabies is what I truly want to work on for my Ph.D. project.”

Jyoti Yadav is pictured in a research lab

Auburn graduate student Jyoti Yadav is pictured in a lab at Auburn’s Scott-Ritchey Research Center in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Yadav’s research is focused on producing antibodies against rabies virus in the brain using a gene therapy.

A treatment of innovation

A major issue with the rabies virus is that it infects the central nervous system.

“The conventional vaccine against viruses induces production of antibodies in the host’s/patient’s bloodstream, which leads to the neutralization of the virus,” Yadav said. “However, that does not happen in the brain. The brain has a blood-brain barrier in place which limits the antibodies to pass through it while the rabies virus easily can. That’s why traditional vaccines are ineffective once the rabies virus reaches the central nervous system.”

Yadav’s research is focused on producing antibodies against rabies virus in the brain using a gene therapy that involves what is known as an adeno-associated viral vector to neutralize the rabies virus at its primary site of replication and negate its harmful symptoms. The gene therapy would be independent of the infected person’s immune response. Yadav said that so far the work has been successful in producing the needed antibodies against the rabies virus in the brain.

“We are hopeful that this therapy would prove to be a potential therapy for rabies infection,” she said, noting that more tests involving the gene therapy will be needed. Martin says he’s excited for Yadav’s work and is hopeful that the research will lead to a breakthrough.

“Jyoti is from India and knows people who have died of rabies,” he said. “Those who have personal connections to their research are often the most motivated and successful. With Jyoti’s talent, work ethic and motivation, along with strong results in pilot studies, I’m very excited about developing a treatment for symptomatic rabies.”

Calvin Johnson, dean of Auburn’s College of Veterinary Medicine, added that “The College of Veterinary Medicine is dedicated to the concept of One Health, where we recognize the interconnectedness of the health of animals, humans and the environment. Jyoti’s research in Dr. Martin’s lab is a perfect example of developing an improved therapy for a human disease that results from exposure to an infected animal. Such zoonotic diseases often have global significance. When a graduate student from an impacted region of the world joins our college to advance our research programs, they tend to work with a noticeable sense of dedication and personal commitment. Jyoti is that type of student, and we are very pleased that she has found an academic home in the Auburn community and the Scott-Ritchey Research Center.”

Jyoti Yadav is pictured in a research lab

Graduate student Jyoti Yadav’s research is focused on producing antibodies against rabies virus in the brain using a gene therapy.

Purpose in the plan

For Yadav, it all speaks to purpose. She tells stories of her sister being chased by stray dogs during her formative years in India and how that has caused her to have an overwhelming fear of dogs. Yadav is quick to note that India has the world’s second highest caseload of rabies, with approximately 20,000 people dying from the virus there each year. She cites the major reasons for the abundance of stray dogs and rabies cases in India as rapid urbanization, cultural factors and a lack of effective sterilization and vaccination programs. Her goal is to do her part in addressing the problem.

“Being a first-generation college student, like other students, I had a mindset of excelling at the research I do, finishing my degree as quickly as possible and getting out in the world to be successful,” she said. “Working in Dr. Martin’s lab on a project that potentially can change people’s lives, I have realized that there’s more to research than just getting a doctoral degree with flying colors.”

Yadav is originally from the city of Gurugram, which is located on the southwestern border of New Delhi — India’s national capital. She was raised in a military family and, as such, often relocated from one part of India to another about every five years.

“So, for me, home is where my family is,” she said.

Prior to arriving at Auburn, she had received her master’s degree in biotechnology in India in 2019. She then received admission to Auburn’s biomedical sciences program in early 2020, but that plan was placed on hold due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. She ultimately joined the doctoral program at Auburn’s College of Veterinary Medicine in spring 2021.

The family connection

Yadav said she’s so glad she chose Auburn.

“I love the sense of community in Auburn. It’s a very new and nice feeling to be greeted with ‘War Eagle’ randomly wherever I go. It truly is one big family,” she said.

Yadav said she plans to return to India and visit her family in December during a holiday break. She said her parents have been exceedingly proud of her accomplishments.

“My parents were the happiest when I told them that I decided to work on gene therapy for rabies for my doctorate degree,” she said.

There currently is no cure or treatment for symptomatic rabies infection. However, Yadav is hopeful the work she is undertaking might not only address rabies but one day also lead to breakthroughs with other viruses that cause brain infections, including West Nile, HIV, Herpes and Zika.

“I hope that the antibody gene therapy against rabies infection would be a steppingstone toward a healthier world without brain infections,” she said.

And while she’s been away from her biological family to chase her dreams and find her purpose on the other side of the world, Yadav said she feels as though she has already made a key discovery — finding a second family of support in Martin and the Auburn community.

“During the first month in Dr. Martin’s lab, I quickly learned that this is the place and project where I really could make a small impact in an area which was very close to home and extremely fascinating,” she said, adding: “Auburn people are very compassionate and generous. Coming from a country so far away, it personally meant a lot for me for Auburn to be so welcoming and warm.”

Learn more about Auburn’s Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program

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