Wednesday, December 30, 2015

India’s Ambitious Biotech Strategy

Senior adviser, DBT Dr Renu Sahay, secretary DBT Dr K Vijay Raghavan  & India's S&T minister Dr Harsh Vardhan at the launch ceremony of National Biotechnology Development Strategy 2015-20
  By Vinod Varshney

To keep pace with the revolutionary global advances in biotechnology, which has given novel agricultural, health, energy and environmental products, India has formulated its own ambitious strategy to emerge as a major player in this field. 

The National Biotechnology Development Strategy: 2015-20 has set a target of taking the current biotechnology industry size from $ 7 billion to $ 100 billion by 2025. The 36-page document prepared after discussing with various stakeholders over two years was formally released today by union minister of S&T and Earth Sciences, Dr Harsh Vardhan.  

The Strategy has for the first time opened the door for global public-private partnership which will usher global giants to establish their R&D Centres and manufacturing units in India with the help of government. Will this not hamper the growth of indigenous biotech companies? Dr Renu Sahay, the senior advisor in the Department of Biotechnology says, ‘No, it would, on the contrary, expose indigenous companies to global standards, practices and technologies. Ultimately they would benefit from all this.’ 

The general feeling among policy makers in India is that biotechnology holds similar promise of sparkling growth in India which information technology (IT) has been able to demonstrate in the past two decades. But India’s remarkable success in IT did not require any global public-private partnership, then why this is needed in the field of biotechnology? Dr K Vijay Raghavan, secretary Department of Biotechnology says, ‘India’s success in the IT sector is in services, which did not require this, but biotechnology is a much more complex thing which needs a lot of high tech research, therefore, partnering with global players would help India.’  

The Strategy cannot succeed without developing quality human resource in sufficient number that is not only highly skilled in bio-chemistry and bio-sciences but also innovative and possessing entrepreneurship. To take care of this issue, several initiatives have been formulated including launching of dual degree MSc-MBA programmes in agribusiness, pharma business and bio enterprise management. 

To spur research, several plans have been enumerated in the Strategy including giving due focus on translational research to convert basic research into technology to manufacture useful products. The plan is to establish Technology Development & Translational Cells in fifty research intensive universities of the country. This apart, 150 Technology Transfer Organisations would be set up across the country in research institutes and universities. All this will help in carrying forward four major biotechnology missions in healthcare, food and nutrition, clean energy and education.

The new Strategy has been formulated on the foundation laid down by an earlier strategy scripted for 2007-12 that was adopted by the UPA government in 2007 which helped the country establishing a robust infrastructure which led to numerous successes. Owing to this, two thirds of the world’s children today get at least one of the vaccines that is produced in India. It could evolve necessary guidelines for transgenic plants, recombinant vaccines & drugs, stem cell therapy etc. 

India could have done much better, but for the unpredictable changes in the way science and technology is done globally. Scientists in Indian labs have been working with the low-end equipments and most of the components had to be imported. It is being felt they can be easily produced in India at a fraction of the cost, says Dr K Vijay Raghavan. The new strategy has taken care of such issues perhaps because it has been formulated in consultation with the Niti Ayog which wants to promote innovation and entrepreneurship in all fields. 

There have been terrific developments in biotechnology in recent years with the revolutionary new ways of gene editing posing new legal, scientific and regulatory challenges. This aspect has been taken care of in the new strategy.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

There May be Zero Diversion of Flights at Delhi Airport in 2-3 Years

By Vinod Varshney

New Delhi, 17 December. There would be near zero diversion of aeroplanes due to fog at Indira Gandhi International Airport in 2-3 years thanks to a mega scientific project intended to develop an efficient forecasting model which would predict accurately the timing of fog and its intensity and duration. 

The pilot project to be run by scientists and technologists of a dozen organisations including IIT-Delhi, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, India Meteorology Department, Indian Council of Agriculture research, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research and Indian Air Force will undertake to collect real time data of fog formation, its continuance and dissipation at two locations in New Delhi. 

Announcing the launch of the project today Dr M Rajeevan, secretary ministry of earth sciences told here today that 32 state of the art scientific instruments have been deployed to observe and analyse fog, some of them have been put on top of a 20 meter high watch tower. These include radiation meter and wind profiler that are being used in India for the first time.

Such a scientific exercise to understand the dynamic nature of fog’s behaviour has been undertaken by Paris and China in the past, but their research is not of much relevance to us since Indian atmospheric setting is different, told Dr L S Rathore, the director general of meteorology after the launch of the research project. 

Dr Rathore explained that the generation of data related to fog is only one aspect of the research as equally important task is to consume data and back that up with the current knowledge to improve the existing forecasting model. Earlier there were two parallel roads, one leading to observation of fog and the other to develop a forecasting model. This time round, the scientific communities of the two different fields have come together. He explained that we receive synoptic level fog data from the satellite but they need to be complemented with the data at the micro level. 

There is acute lack of understanding of fog while it is increasingly creating problems for the power transmission, road, rail and air transport and also impacting agriculture during winter. There are so many plant diseases which can be attributed to fog. Therefore, the second observation site has been established at ICAR institute, Pusa to study fog’s impact on agriculture.   

Fog is generally understood as a visible mass consisting of cloud water droplets suspended in air or near the earth surface. It is considered as a type of low level cloud.  The phenomenon of fog is more complicated than rain which is now being forecast quite successfully. 

In case of fog it has been observed while it is quite intense at one runway at the airport but does not exist at all at another runway a few hundred meters away. Why? Then there are questions why occurrence of fog is increasing over the years. And is there any role of increasing pollution in increasing incidence of fog? The attempt to understand all this by studying its micro-physics and micro-chemistry has therefore become important.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Bright Students Should Opt for Pure Science

By Vinod Varshney
School children of Delhi (National Capital Region) have finally broken the world record of conducting the biggest science practical at one location. Two thousand science students had gathered at the IIT, Delhi on December 7 during the India International Science Festival to conduct the practical named ‘Elephant’s Toothpaste’. Reliable sources say officials of the Guinness Book of World Records have intimated the minster of science & technology, Dr Harsh Vardhan about the acceptance of the claim made by the organisers on the practical.  
This largest-ever science practical done by 2,000 students was meticulously planned by coordinator, Prof K Girish Kumar, the senior professor of chemistry in Cochin University of S&T. Expressing happiness at the news, he told ‘Blog for Science’ that the event would create a new environment of learning and teaching of science in the country and such events should be repeated regularly. ‘My message to the bright children of the country is that they should pursue pure science rather than rushing to become doctors and engineers’.
Before this practical, the largest one was conducted at the Odyssey Arena in Belfast on February 24 this year when 1,339 primary school students of 7th and 8th standard from Belfast had participated in a mass chromatography practical. That effort was supported and conducted by The Royal Society of Chemistry, London.
Sources indicated that the science & technology and human resources development ministers, Dr Harsh Vardhan and Smriti Irani respectively, might announce anytime soon the next such event which would be ten times bigger than this. The plan would entail arranging 20,000 students from across India at the Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium to conduct the practical. 
The science practical on such a big scale would certainly induce young students towards science across the country. The India International Science Festival was also organised with this purpose in mind by the TIFAC as the nodal agency with the help of various departments of the science & technology ministry and earth sciences. The initiative was taken by Vijnana Bharti, an RSS-linked outfit that had being working for science popularization in several states. 
The demonstration of the record-breaking practical ‘Elephant’s Toothpaste’ in which nitrogen peroxide’s disintegration was speeded up by use of a catalyst to create huge froth possible to be made by an elephant, was done and explained by Dr I Anitha, an associate professor of chemistry with Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam and Ammu Rosin Jose, a CSIR research fellow in the Cochin University of Science & Technology. Another CSIR research fellow working with the same university, Shalini Menon had taught the theory part of the practical to the students, belonging to class 9th to 12th. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

GenNext to Give a New Herbal Drug for Rheumatoid Arthritis !

By Vinod Varshney
A GenNext team of Indian scientists is quite close to zero in on an effective and side-effect free herbal drug for Rheumatoid Arthritis, for which there is today no absolute treatment available in allopathy even as more than a crore people suffer from this autoimmune disease in India alone. An auto-immune disease means body’s defence mechanism against diseases actually acts against the healthy tissues of the body.

Ankit Tanwar, 24, a Toxicologist by training and the key researcher of the team, which took up a project of the DRDO (Defence Research & Development Organisation) and Jamia Hamdard to search the most efficacious herbs for Rheumatoid Arthritis, told in an oral presentation in the Young Scientists Meet session of the ongoing Indian International Science Festival in the IIT, Delhi that they had developed for the first time in the world a mathematical model to be run with the help of computers to find the most efficacious herbs which can be used to develop a potent herbal medicine for Rheumatoid Arthritis.

Tanwar claimed that the team first identified 50 potentially efficacious herbs from various countries and various parts of India and then finally shortlisted only 11 out of this.

The team with the support of the Department of Medical Elementology and Toxicology of Jamia Hamdard (Hamdard University), Delhi is now working to test their herbal formulation on mammalian model. The results, so far, have shown that the new product would not only prevent and cure the Rheumatoid Arthritis, but would also take care of any opportunistic infections, which accompany with the worst case scenario patients.

Common experience is Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) gives a lot of suffering due to chronic inflammation, joint erosions and progressive bone loss. Since molecular mechanism of rheumatoid arthritis is not well understood, the discovery of a perfect medicine has  remained elusive.

Fortunately, it is possible to detect susceptibility among people many years before the actual onset of RA. This also means that if proper drugs are available, the vulnerable person can not only manage the disease well but can also delay it for many years.

Suppressing autoimmunity by synthetic drugs like painkillers, steroids and modifier drugs, etc., is called as a revolutionary method in allopathy to check the progression of Rheumatic Arthritis and protect joints from further decay, but this leads to several toxic  or unwanted effects in long term usage. Moreover, the risk of opportunistic infections is also associated due to suppressed immunity. Patients, therefore, more often than not  turn to herbal medicines for relief.