Medical Biotechnology - A DBT vision for India to attain new heights
Thursday, October 11, 2001 08:00 IST
How much credit has India deserved for its gains in basic scientific research? An objective answer to this question would not be very inspirational. The most appropriate criterion to judge the level of success of a country in the fields of basic research and development (R&D) and technological ingenuity is to take stock of the actual deliveries in terms of new products, processes and commercially proven technologies.
In India''s case, R&D in most areas has conventionally been an exclusivity privileged by alarge number of public sector institutes set up over the last many decades. These institutes, who occasionally do make verbal hyperboles and extravagant promises, had over the years greatly eroded their credibility for lack of real results. Indeed, it is unfair to blame them squarely for the dismal situation in basic R&D.
While the public sector laboratories working in diverse areas of research had acquired certain unmistakable traits of laziness and complacency much long ago, the fact is that they have also been inadequately equipped - lack of globally compatible infrastructure, scarcity of requisite critical mass of trained, specialized manpower etc. have remained their constant worry. The private sector, despite the presence of a few large corporate houses that had the financial muscle to make sufficient investments in R&D, were equally at fault, if not more. No commensurate R&D spending had ever been reported by the domestic corporates, who had smugness in being as they were.
Has biotechnology research in India been any different? To a great extent, it has. Developed comparatively late, the biotech research in India began with a rare wisdom. The domestic biotech research institutes have already a large number of final products and are now seriously talking of cutting edge, high-end research. In a vision document released recently outlining a futuristic, ten-year perspective for biotech research in the country, the department of biotechnology (DBT) quite responsibly speaks of "Attaining new heights in biotechnology research and shaping biotechnology into a premier precision tool of the future for creation of wealth and ensuring social justice..."
The DBT proposes to launch a major well-directed effort with this purpose, entailing significant investments from both the government and private firms. The efforts will be aimed to harness biotechnological tools for generation of new products, processes and technologies. One of the major research segments is medical biotechnology. Here, the country''s broad objective is to enhance the efficacy, productivity and cost-effectiveness of"molecular medicines."The two areas identified by DBT for special emphasis are Genomics and Bioinformatics wherein the country has natural advantages.
Currently, the sequencing of human genome (genomics) has brought valuable information to public domain. In this backdrop, Indian institutions and the emerging biotech industry in the country need to be part of international collaborative projects in selected areas of genomic studies. The vast genetic material India possesses, with its diverse population is unparalleled in the world. The country has much to offer in terms of intellectual capital too, with its abundance of human resources.
Says Dr. Dr. Inder M Verma of Salk Institute of the US; "countries like Brazil and Iceland had an appreciable role in the human genome project, with their variety of genetic material. India could have done much better if it had seized the initiative." Indian scientists however have a different view in this regard.They have no penitence over India having no role in human genome project and seem to believe that India''s role in genomic research starts now."
The DBT is negotiating with leading Indian pharmaceutical and biotech companies for collaborative ventures in secondary genomic research. The focus of these projects will be in areas like proteomics, functional genomics and also on datamining, curation and annotation of the available genome data. Known names likeRanbaxy Labs, Biological Evans and Chem Biotech are among those evincing interest in these projects. According to Dr Manju Sharma, secretary, DBT, the proposed ventures each with a definite aim and structure, would take India forward in areas like functional genomics and proteomics, with a strong bio-informatics platform already in place in the country. The projects are estimated to demand substantial investments from both the government and the companies concerned.
It is not that there had been no activity in genomic research in India by far the human genome data was out. The New Delhi-based Centre for Biochemical Technology (CBT) had been into functional genomics much earlier. Shortly after the announcement of human genome sequencing, CBT tied up a major project with an eager Nicholas Piramal India Ltd, which has identified pharmacogenomics as a frontier, commercially benefiting research area. The specialty of this project is that here a private company is contributing to the setting up of a research facilities with a government laboratory form which both can benefit. Also, a composite project on India''s human genome diversity is now underway between the Indian Statistical Institute, Indian Institute of Chemical Biology and Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Calcutta.
Says Dr Sharma, " Such collaborations must aim to find cures for diseases endemic to India like hypertension, obesity, depression, schizophrenia and various types of viral and bacterial infections by using the tools of genetics."
In the post-genomics era, while gene and drug discovery had been considerably simplified, there will be an imperative need to capitalize on the gains. There can be no dispute over India''s capability in genome studies now, with the recent announcement of completion of sequencing of a hepatitis C microbe genome in the country. The understanding of the genes of the microorganism would give clues to the "total biology of the disease which could pave way for better therapy and prognostication through better drug targets, vaccines etc. Genome sequencing projects on three-four other disease-causing microbes are also underway and these are likely to be completed in a couple of years.
Similarly, bioinformatics, which deals with the whole gamut of biological data like the development of data analysis tools, modeling of biological macromolecules and other complexes and has applications in metabolic pathways as well as in designing of new drug molecules, peptide vaccines, proteins is another promising area. India is said to be among one of the world leaders with USA and Germany in the database development for high-end biotech research. DBT is already controlling a nationwide biotechnology information system (BTIS).Leading domestic and foreign computer companies have already begun allying with DBT institutions for specific projects in the area. GBF (German Research Centre for Biotechnology) and firms controlled by Malaysian government have recently submitted proposals to DBT for partnership projects in these areas.Among the major alliances already commenced in India include joint venture of Satyam Computers with CCMB, Hyderabad, the project between Centre for DNA Fingerprinting & Diagnostics with TCS and Aditya Birla Group''s venture with the National Brain Research Institute, New Delhi. These collaborations will result in a pooling of the financial resources of the companies with the technical inputs of government-sector firms, says Dr T Madhan Mohan, director (bioinformatics), DBT.
The government is also planning to set up a National Bioinformatics Institute (NBI) under the department of biotechnology during the 10th five-year Plan. The proposed institute will be on the lines of the National Centre for Bioinformatics under the National Institute of Health (NIH) of the USA with a mandate to frame the necessary policy frameworks for bioinformatics ventures in India and to regulate the standards and guidelines for bioinformatics research. Various bioinformatics activities like software and database development, manpower, genomics, proteomics and services would be brought under the proposed NBI. The focus on bioinformatics is in the backdrop of the fact that core biotechnology activities like genomics, proteomics and sequencing are becoming increasingly dependent on bioinformatics and its products.