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Dr. Abhinav Thakral

I am a pediatrician trained at Maulana Azad Medical College, Delhi, India. I earned both MBBS and MD (Pediatrics) degrees at the same institution. Thereafter, I worked with Delhi government hospitals and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi in different roles as a pediatrician and community physician. These roles pivoted my interest towards Public Health and I earned an MPH degree from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, at the University of Toronto. Having completed my practicum projects at the COMBIEL lab, I have joined a pediatric residency program in Brooklyn, United States. I intend to train as a pediatric geneticist in the future.

Q: What projects have you worked on in Dr. Liu’s Lab? Could you please explain what specifically you did?


I joined the lab as an MPH practicum student with a focus on genetic epidemiology projects and after completion of the practicum joined the lab on a full-time basis. I worked on several projects involving genome-wide association studies, mendelian randomization, and polygenic risk scores.


 My primary project is focused on elucidating the differences in the association of smoking and alcohol use behaviours with HPV associated and HPV-negative head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCCs) using a mendelian randomization approach. My responsibilities involved developing the analytic plan and conducting the analysis for the project under Dr. Liu and Dr. Xu’s guidance.


My second project looks at the prediction of the risk of HNSCCs using polygenic risk scores of smoking and alcohol use behaviours. I also worked on another mendelian randomization project that looks at the association of BMI with lung cancer survival. I also conducted the analysis of a project related to the genetics of Cisplatin ototoxicity. Finally, I was also involved with variant annotation for a GWAS of lung cancer survival.


Q: Why is this research important? 


My primary project looks at the differences in the association of smoking and alcohol use behaviours with Human Papillomavirus (HPV) associated and HPV-negative head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCCs) using a mendelian randomization approach. HPV-associated and HPV-negative HNSCCs have traditionally been considered a single disease entity with HPV being a risk factor along with smoking and alcohol use. However, HPV-associated and HPV-negative HNSCCs are now recognized as separate disease entities with distinct biology, epidemiology, treatment, and prognosis. Despite this recognition, the contribution of smoking and alcohol use to these distinct cancers is not clearly understood. This project will help understand these differences. The answers to my research question will help in clarifying the contribution of the modifiable risk factors, such as smoking and alcohol use, towards the risk of these two distinct cancers, potentially informing patients, clinicians, epidemiologists, and policy makers regarding the risks associated with smoking and alcohol behaviours.


My second project is concerned with the prediction of risk of HPV-positive and HPV-negative HNSCCs using the polygenic risk scores of smoking and alcohol use. This project essentially looks at the non-modifiable genetic risk of smoking and alcohol use and its prediction of the risk of HNSCCs.


My third project is a pharmacogenomic study of the association of the TLR-4 locus with Cisplatin ototoxicity (CIO). Cisplatin is a cancer chemotherapeutic agent that is commonly used for several cancers. Unfortunately, like most chemotherapeutic agents, it is associated with several adverse effects. Ototoxicity associated with this agent causes irreversible hearing loss, leaving cancer survivors with debilitating long-term disability. However, not everyone who receives the drug develops ototoxicity. Our research project aims to understand the genetics of CIO with the goal of identifying molecular targets to prevent CIO and make Cisplatin a safer chemotherapeutic agent.


Finally, I annotated the results of a GWAS of lung cancer survival. My research will help in identifying genetic loci associated with lung cancer survival and in guiding future research to identify molecular targets as therapeutics for lung cancer.


Q: What did you enjoy most about working in Dr. Liu’s Lab?


My experience at the COMBIEL lab was very rewarding. I got the opportunity to develop my research and analytic skills, learnt a lot from my lab mates and PIs, and most importantly, enjoyed every moment of working in the lab. The PIs are very approachable and give a lot of freedom in letting the trainee choose their research project. I benefited immensely from their insight, keen eye for details, and support at every part of the research journey. My lab mates were very cooperative and fun to work with.


Q: What attracted you to your current occupation/job? 


It would have to be the interdisciplinary nature of the lab. The lab has experts from diverse academic backgrounds, including medicine, epidemiology, biostatistics, computer science, genetics, and molecular biology. To answer their research question, the trainee can avail the opportunity to use cutting-edge analytic methods and expert opinion from diverse disciplines.


Q: What do you plan on doing in the future? 


I am a pediatrician with research interests in pediatric genetic disorders. My goal is to expand the horizons of what is considered treatable. Through research, I intend to improve the quality of care for children with genetic disorders, many of which are considered untreatable. As such, working with the COMBIEL lab has made me believe that my research interests in pediatric genetics are not too quixotic. Current therapies for cancer are not only improving survival but also the quality of life for people with cancer. Over the last two decades, newer therapies have changed the perspective for many advanced-stage cancers from death sentences to treatable chronic disorders. My long-term career goal is to impact the lives of children with genetic disorders positively and to an extent similar or greater to that of biologic therapies in cancer.

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