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Japanese collaboration… sunshine news from Land of Sunrise

We step aside from our journey through the endeavours of our scientists working in different DBT institutes, to serve up some good news on our international collaborations.

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) have signed separate Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) with RIKEN, Japan’s largest comprehensive research institution renowned for high-quality research in a diverse range of scientific disciplines.

The aim is to launch joint research programmes in the fields of biology, life sciences and material sciences.

Nobel Laureate scientist Professor Ryoji Noyori signed the MoU in New Delhi on September 14 as the President of RIKEN.

Genome related research ‑ including systems biology, development of bioinformatics tools, detection tools such as spectroscopy ‑ would be some of the areas the research programmes under this MoU would be focusing on.

ImageThe Secretary, DST, Dr. T. Ramasami and Prof. NOYORI Ryoji, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry (2001), President RIKEN, Japan at the MoU signing event in New Delhi

For us at DBT, this MoU will usher in a new era of cooperation in the area of innovations and techniques for the agricultural and pharmacological industries in India.

You may be wondering how long the MoU would take to fructify. It is perhaps natural to ask: “Is this yet another formality being trumpeted?” Such processes do take some time, though.

But the signing of the MoU will be followed very promptly by an agreement for joint laboratories for research on materials and biological sciences.

The function held on September 14 comes from years of interaction that have resulted in close interactions and institutional as well as country-wise bonds of friendship.

So, this is a formal step based on a strong foundation.

The laboratory on materials sciences would be a collaboration between Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc )and RIKEN and will be funded by the DST.

The laboratory on neurosciences and developmental biology is collaboration between the National Centre for Biological Science (NCBS/TIFR), the Institute for Stem Biology and Regenerative Medicine (INSTEM) and RIKEN Center for Cell and Developmental Biology, and will be funded by the DBT.

Our soon-to-be spruced-up and ‘happening’ website will keep you all posted about such happy tidings.

Under the RIKEN-DBT & DST joint research initiative, RIKEN and DBT or DST will determine the fields of collaboration, selection methods and numbers of collaborative programmes through mutual collaboration.

Apart from joint research programmes, the joint initiative will also support exchange of researchers, post-doctoral fellows and knowledge exchanges through seminars and symposia.

In a public lecture at the National Institute of Immunology to celebrate the signing of the MoU Professor Ryoji Noyori highlighted the importance of scientific collaborations in reaching the benefits of science to the people at large.

The hall was packed with students from the research colleges of the Delhi University and from neighbouring institutes.

Elaborating on his own research on asymmetric catalysis and how he applied it on catalytic hydrogenation, Professor Noyori emphasised that while serendipity is important in scientific discoveries, the young should know that chance only favours the prepared mind.

And mere school education is not sufficient to be prepared, in terms of science, he said.

He greatly appreciated India’s successes, especially in mathematics, and in facilitating mass access to medicines by producing low cost generic options.

Earlier collaborations with RIKEN have been quite productive.

We in DBT look forward to facilitate more such collaborations to encourage diversity of ideas in science that can trigger better solutions.

Journey with ‘moody’ Salmonella

We start a new series on scientists and their teams to understand not just a specific success, such as a product or publication, but how the team works on a problem, who they are and how they have dedicatedly kept the ship on course.

Salmonellaa bacterium, the same strain of which produces different diseases in different hosts, and closely related serotypes behave in starkly varied manners.

For example, Salmomella typhi is the culprit behind the life-threatening typhoid fever rampant in Africa, Asia and South America.

However, another serotype, Salmonella typhimurium, produces self-limiting localised gastroenteritis with infection restricted to the gut.

Again, the symptoms characterising the intrusion of the serotype into the body of mice starkly differ from those seen in the human body.

In mice, Salmonella typhimurium leads to a systemic disease that is analogous to human typhoid while S. typhi does not establish successful infection.

Vaccines developed against S. typhi have not resulted in lasting defence against this pathogen.

The reasons remain largely elusive. The unique behaviour of this pathogen intrigued Ayub Qadri and his team at the National Institute of Immunology (NII), New Delhi.

The Hybridoma Lab headed by Qadri has been probing the reasons for different clinical outcomes produced by these two closely related Salmonella serotypes and the mechanisms by which pathogenic Salmonella modulates the hosts’ immune defences in order to establish systemic infection.

Their aim is to understand interactions of the immune system with these closely related Salmonella serotypes, which could provide guidelines for designing a more effective vaccine – one of the areas of interest for us at the DBT and other agencies.

The Hybridoma Lab’s latest discovery is that T cells, which are primarily involved in adaptive immunity, might also contribute to innate immune responses.

Their findings also suggest that innate immune responses during microbial infections may be regulated by host lipids.

This is an important finding, and we are all keenly awaiting their further work on how these lipids may be participating in modulating innate immunity.

However, this was not a one off find. I would like to run you through the team’s relentless probe into the behaviour of Salmonella serotypes and their long journey to understand the tricky interplay between this pathogen and the host.

When Qadri started working on Salmonella typhi, any vaccine against this pathogen had not come to the market, and timely detection of the infection was very difficult.

Determined to improve this situation, he initiated an independent research programme to understand host-microbe interactions during infection by this pathogen.

In a significant finding in 2004, Qadri, with his student Amita Sharma, found that a protein called prohibitin might be engaged by S. typhi to modulate the immune system when this bacterium attacks the host (published in PNAS).


In another significant contribution a few years later, his group found that host cells produce a lipid that ‘tricks’ Salmonella into secreting flagellin ( a key bacterial molecule that generates inflammatory and innate immune responses) so that the bugs can be detected by the host sensor, triggering an immune response.

This novel finding of Ayub Qadri and Naeha Subramanium was published in Nature Immunology in 2006.

Following up on this work, Qadri’s team has now found that the ‘trick’ is detected by the bug soon after it is started and production of flagellin is stopped.

They are trying to understand the ‘trick’ so that the flagellin production can be prolonged.

In 2010, they registered another important find — that haemoglobin might be able to neutralise the anti-immune capability of Vi polysaccharide (outer coating of S. typhi responsible for its virulence; also Salmonella vaccine) and transform it into an immune activator.

They are now working on understanding how this pro-inflammatory capability of Vi might be contributing to the vaccine’s efficacy.

Led by an efficient captain, the members of his team are equally passionate. While Ajay Suresh Akhade is assessing the regulation of TLR responses, Farhat Parveen is trying to investigate the role of membrane prohibitin in cell signaling.

Sonia is probing deeper into the differences between S. typhi and S. typhimurium, and Jitender Yadav is restless to understand the modulation of the immune responses by pathogenic Salmonella.

The teams’ collective work will significantly contribute to understanding and exploiting the mechanisms of the immune system, using various tools of modern biology to pursue creative solutions to a broad range of health problems.

With inputs from science journalist Archita Bhatta

Dengue: A global burden.. and some news from India

Here is a link to a must read not so recent paper, in Nature, on the global prevalence of dengue. One of the authors is Jeremy Farrar who will soon take charge as Director of the Wellcome Trust. Farrar has done stellar research in tropical diseases in the Trust’s labs in Vietnam.

From Bhatt et al

Here is the abstract of the article published in Nature. Note the last sentence. The DBT has programs and support in dengue research working on those lines. The Abstract: “Dengue is a systemic viral infection transmitted between humans by Aedes mosquitoes. For some patients, dengue is a life-threatening illness. There are currently no licensed vaccines or specific therapeutics, and substantial vector control efforts have not stopped its rapid emergence and global spread. The contemporary worldwide distribution of the risk of dengue virus infections and its public health burden are poorly known. Here we undertake an exhaustive assembly of known records of dengue occurrence worldwide, and use a formal modelling framework to map the global distribution of dengue risk. We then pair the resulting risk map with detailed longitudinal information from dengue cohort studies and population surfaces to infer the public health burden of dengue in 2010. We predict dengue to be ubiquitous throughout the tropics, with local spatial variations in risk influenced strongly by rainfall, temperature and the degree of urbanization. Using cartographic approaches, we estimate there to be 390 million (95% credible interval 284–528) dengue infections per year, of which 96 million (67–136) manifest apparently (any level of disease severity). This infection total is more than three times the dengue burden estimate of the World Health Organization. Stratification of our estimates by country allows comparison with national dengue reporting, after taking into account the probability of an apparent infection being formally reported. The most notable differences are discussed. These new risk maps and infection estimates provide novel insights into the global, regional and national public health burden imposed by dengue. We anticipate that they will provide a starting point for a wider discussion about the global impact of this disease and will help to guide improvements in disease control strategies using vaccine, drug and vector control methods, and in their economic evaluation.”

And, below is news of a practical dengue detection kit from the ICGEB, New Delhi. The text is from Professor Virander Chauhan, Director ICGEB Delhi. The ICGEB, amongst other places, is involved in a Dengue vaccine initiative. The one at ICGEB is led by Navin Khanna.

A Day 1 Dengue Detection Kit
Co-developed by J. Mitra& Co. and ICGEB New Delhi

Dengue disease may be asymptomatic or manifest symptoms ranging from mild fever to severe hemorrhage and shock syndrome, making clinical diagnosis difficult. Hence, a lot of emphasis is being made on the development of laboratory diagnostic methods which could enable quick and accurate detection of dengue. Timely diagnosis of this disease may prevent its progression to severe hemorrhagic conditions and death. Laboratory diagnosis of dengue may be based on isolation of virus, detection of viral genome, viral antigens or dengue-specific antibodies.

Currently, a number of kits are commercially available for the diagnosis of dengue on the basis of detection of IgG, IgM and NS1 antigen, either alone or in combination, using rapid tests (based on immune-chromatography) or ELISAs. Panbio Limited, Standard Diagnostics and BioRad have been the major players involved in the development of these kits.

An Indian company J. Mitra & Co Pvt. Ltd. in collaboration with International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), New Delhi, has developed a test for the simultaneous detection of Dengue NS1 antigen and dengue IgM/IgG antibodies in human plasma/serum. This unique 3×1 combo rapid test provides a wider window of detection for dengue infection. This is very useful for the Indian settings where both primary and secondary dengue infections are co-prevalent. Further, the uniquely designed NS1 binder and reveal reagents used in the Dengue Day 1 test are highly cross-reactive between all 4 dengue virus serotypes, enabling detection of dengue infections irrespective of its serotype.

Dengue Day 1 Test is a rapid solid phase immuno-chromatographic test for the qualitative detection of Dengue NS1 Antigen and differential detection of IgM and IgG antibodies to Dengue virus in Human serum/plasma. This test is for in vitro diagnostic use only and is intended as an aid in the earlier diagnosis of Dengue infection & presumptive diagnosis between primary and secondary Dengue infection.
Dengue Day 1 test kit consists of two devices: one device for detection of Dengue NS1 antigen and second device for the differential detection of Dengue IgM/IgG antibodies in Human serum/plasma.
Dengue NS1 Antigen device contains two lines; ‘C’ (Control line) & “T” (Dengue NS1 Antigen test line). Test line is coated with anti-dengue NS1 Ag. When a sample is added to the device, Dengue NS1 antigen if present in the sample will bind to the anti-dengue NS1 gold colloidal conjugate making antigen antibodies complex. This complex migrates along the membrane to the test region and forms the visible pink line at “T” as antibody-antigen-antibody gold colloid forms.
Dengue IgM/IgG test device contains three lines; “C” (Control line), “M”(IgM test line) & “G”(IgG test line).IgM test line is coated with anti-human IgM and IgG test line is coated with anti-human IgG. When a sample is added to the device, IgG and IgM antibodies in the sample react with anti-human IgM or IgG antibodies coated on the membrane respectively. Colloidal gold complexes containing dengue 1-4 antigens is captured by the bound anti-dengue IgM or IgG on respective test bands located in the test window causing a pale to dark red band to form at the IgG or IgM region of the test device window.
First line testing kit for detecting dengue infection from day 1 using NS1 Antigen & differential detection of IgM&IgG Antibodies.
Diagnosis of both Primary & Secondary Infection.
Detects all 4 serotypes of Dengue virus.
Highly Sensitive & Highly Specific.
Long shelf life: 18 months at 2-30°C.
Convenient pack sizes: 10 Tests & 25 Tests.
Being sold in >40 countries in Asia and Africa.

Why do vaccines responses vary? Why do responses to infections vary? Here are one kind of valid answers

Why do vaccines responses vary? Why do responses to infections vary? Here are one kind of valid answers.

Why do vaccines responses vary? Why do responses to infections vary? Here are one kind of valid answers

Variability in vaccine efficacy
Natural selection in a Bangladeshi Population from the cholera-endemic Ganges-river delta: Two independent questions with similar answers from two studies.

Currently available vaccines against various infections do not elicit similar levels of immune response in individuals receiving them. In a study on a cholera vaccine, Partho Majumder and his colleagues have found genetic variants that are associated with immune response. Interestingly, this study also found an innate immunity gene to be associated with vaccine response. Their study will soon be published in the European Journal of Human Genetics, but is already available online here on the journal’s web site.
Partho Mazumder is a leading human geneticist who heads the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics. We discussed a recent news item in The Hindu, by email. Here’s the original article in Science Translational Medicine . Here’s what Partha has to say on this important paper:
Partho says: “Till a few years ago, diseases were classified as being due to two separate sets of causes, genetic and environmental. Infectious diseases were provided as examples of “environmental diseases.” With the ability to carry out genetic studies spanning the entire human genome, it has become clear that genetic variations in the host modulate susceptibility to infectious diseases. This paper on cholera-susceptibility is an excellent example. This paper is interesting not only because of its significant conclusions pertaining to susceptibility to a deadly infectious agent, Vibrio cholerae, but also because of its innovative use of population genetic and statistical methods. The investigators reasoned that individuals who had the genetic ability to escape the attacks of Vibrio cholerae in spite of living in a cholera-endemic region must have gained a selective advantage. Therefore, if one is able to identify the regions of the genome that confer such selective advantage in a cholera-endemic region – such as, Bangladesh, it may be possible to identify genes that confer resistance to cholera. The authors did just this; they first identified genomic regions that have evolved under strong selective pressures, then they identified some variants in genes and genetic pathways that were associated with resistance to cholera, which they validated in an independent sample. They found that variants in the innate immune signaling pathways, which are responsible for recognizing the pathogen, are primarily associated with cholera-resistance. Some other genes that are highly expressed in the digestive tract were also found to be associated with resistance.
Understanding biological mechanisms underlying resistance to infectious diseases are a key to vaccine development. The findings of this study are a major step in that direction.”

Rotavirus vaccine phase 3 trial

Here’s great news, live from the Rotavirus meeting at Delhi. A terrific example of collaboration and staying power for an important cause: Reducing childhood mortality due to diarrhoea.
Nita Bhandari talks about her team. This is hot off the press and more details in due course.
K, VijayRaghavan

Dr. Nita Bhandari
Society for Applied Studies
Rotavirus Vaccine Developed in India Is a Major Breakthrough

Today we celebrate a wonderful breakthrough for Indian researchers, but most importantly for India’s children. Each year, over 1 lakh Indian children die from the most common and severe cause of diarrhoea: rotavirus.

I was thrilled to be part of history today as we announced positive results from a clinical study of the first indigenous rotavirus vaccine. This rotavirus vaccine was developed from an Indian strain by an Indian company, and tested by Indian investigators in an effort led by the Indian government and supported by several national and global partners.

The rotavirus vaccine we studied (ROTAVAC®) significantly reduced severe rotavirus diarrhoea by more than half—56 percent during the first year of life, with protection continuing into the second year of life. Moreover, the vaccine also showed impact against severe diarrhoea of any cause. The clinical results indicate that the vaccine, if licensed, could save the lives of thousands of children each year in India.

I am proud to have led an extraordinary team of clinical investigators at three sites across India for this pivotal clinical study—the Centre for Health Research and Development, Society for Applied Studies (CHRD-SAS) in New Delhi; Shirdi Sai Baba Rural Hospital, KEM Hospital Research Centre in Vadu, Pune; and Christian Medical College (CMC) in Vellore. The Principal Investigators were Dr Temsunaro Rongsen-Chandola at CHRD-SAS, Dr Ashish Bavdekar at KEM, and Dr Gagandeep Kang at CMC. I was supported by Kalpana Antony and Sunita Taneja.

The experience, expertise, and excellence of the investigators ensured that this trial met the highest standards for ethics and patient care and complied with international standards for good clinical practices. In particular, we had in place a strong safety net to identify and treat illnesses, especially gastroenteritis, among study infants as early as possible. We gave mobile phones to the mothers of all of the infants enrolled in the study to ensure that the children received high-quality medical and emergency care during the study period.

For the first time, we have taken a vaccine from the earliest discovery through every stage of development. This major contribution to public health is thanks to the knowledge and dedication of our national researchers, and I am proud and humbled to have been a part of this unique collaboration.

Health-care technology from IIT Madras

Here’s some good news to share about Healthcare Technology Innovation Centre (HTIC), a DBT supported R&D centre of IIT Madras. Dr. Mohanasankar Sivaprakasam  sends us this report. HTIC brings together engineers, doctors and healthcare professionals, industry and government to develop healthcare technologies specifically addressing accessibility and affordability.  HTIC collaborates with more than 15 organizations in its goal to develop these technologies, thus evolving into a leading med-tech collaboration platform in the country. HTIC is driven by its vision to create impact and drive innovation in healthcare and be a leader in this area known for technical excellence and collaborative spirit.  A recent summary of HTIC’s work is featured here.

HTIC has already delivered  three working solutions since its inception in late 2011.

a)   A mobile eye surgical unit that can travel to remote locations that provides a safe, stable and sterile environment to perform cataract surgery. This first-of-its-kind technology and delivery model in the country consists of several engineering innovations to meet safety and sterility requirement’s while operating in rural setting. Following the demonstration of clinical feasibility and viability through pilot of 486 surgeries, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, has given approval to continue operations. A video documentary of the project is here

b)   HTIC has developed Eye-PAC™, a computing technology for extracting information from eye images. HTIC’s Eye-PAC™ technology consists of image computing and analytics modules built upon advanced mathematical and computational techniques. HTIC partnered with Forus Health, a young Indian med-tech company, to develop a solution based on Eye-PAC™ technology for their indigenous multifunctional ophthalmic pre-screening device, 3nethra. The computational intelligence capabilities of Eye-PAC™ have helped 3nethra reach more than 100 locations in 8 different countries. Details of the project are here.

c)   Evaluation of arterial stiffness requires measurement of changes in arterial dimensions. State of the art methods use ultrasound imaging for this. The requirement of expensive technology, and extensive technical expertise to use that technology limits wide spread use of image-based arterial stiffness. HTIC has developed ARTSENS™ – an image-free technology for non-invasively measuring arterial stiffness in an automated manner. Pilot studies have demonstrated the ability of ARTSENS™  to measure arterial stiffness under in-vivo settings, even by personnel with limited training. An extensive clinical study of the device is currently underway. Details of the project are here.

Do take a look and send us your ideas about how engineers and scientists can work with medics to get affordable healthcare to the field: K. VijayRaghavan

Fighting Children’s diarrhoea: Advances with a rotavirus vaccine

Promising results from a major DBT supported rotavirus vaccine effort.

Prepared with inputs from Dr. Sandhya Shenoy

Childhood diarrhea is a major killer and rotavirus infections are a major cause. Available vaccines are expensive but a more affordable one may come soon, Dr. T. S. Rao, Senior Adviser at the DBT reported at recent meeting in Pune, highlighted in BioSpectrum recently. Here is the report reproduced with permission:

Pune: The phase III trial of RotaVac, India’s first indigenously developed rotavirus vaccine, has been completed and the data is presently being analyzed for further development of the same. The announcement was made at the Vaccine World Summit, being held in Pune from March 5-7. While highlighting some of the developments in the vaccine space of India, Dr T S Rao, advisor, Department of Biotechnology under the Ministry of Science and Technology, India, said RotaVac, which promises to be a $1 per dose vaccine, has been tested on 6,800 subjects at three locations: SAS Delhi, CMC Vellore and KEM Mumbai. The vaccine is being developed by Bharat Biotech with support from institutions such as DBT, Gates Foundation, Program for Appropriate Technologies in Health (PATH), Centers for Disease Control, USA, National Institutes of Health NIAID, USA, Society for Applied Studes, Translational Health Sciences Technology Institute, Indian Institute of Science, All India Institute of Medical Science and Stanford University. In 2011, Dr Krishna Ella, chairman and MD, Bharat Biotech, had announced that Rotavac would be available at a price of $1 per dose. The company expects India licensure during 2014 and WHO pre-qualification in 2015 for supply to UN agencies. India’s vaccine market stands at $260 million at the moment. Centers for Disease Control estimates say rotavirus causes about 352,000-to-592,000 deaths each year in children below the age of five. Praising the effort of this public-private partnership, Dr Rao said, “This is the best model for vaccine development and a perfect PPP model. Seeing the efficiency of the Rotavac project, a similar model has been adopted for malaria vaccine development.” Discussing the challenges in vaccine development, he commented, “One of the challenges in vaccine space is clinical trials of new vaccines. DBT is closely working with the the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) to solve this issue about clinical trials.” The event at Pune is providing a platform for leading vaccine players to explore partnership opportunities at various stages of the vaccine life cycle, from the earliest basic research to licensure of the vaccine. © Copyright © 2012.  CyberMedia (I) Ltd All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without written permission is prohibited.”

Support for rotavirus vaccine research and development has come from the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) since 1989. Following early work on identification of distinct strains of rotavirus independently both at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS, led by Dr. M. K. Bhan, later to become Secretary DBT), New Delhi  and at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc, led by Professor C. Durga Rao) Bangalore, the AIIMS research team and the IISc investigators were provided the first funding by the DBT. This, seed money grew the program under the Indo-US Vaccine Action Program.  As a part of the program, collaborations were established with the Center for Disease Control (CDC), USA, Stanford University and investigators from the Society for Applied Sciences (SAS), New Delhi, the Christian Medical College (CMC) Vellore and the King Edward Medical College, Pune. The CDC helped in rotavirus surveillance and in assisting with clinical design and laboratory issues related to the trials. The AIIMS and CMC Vellore research teams played strong roles in the laboratory. Stanford University remained a valued partner providing specific  virology expertise as well as real world vaccine development knowledge. The Translational Health Science Technological Institute (THSTI, a DBT aided autonomous institution) established a rotavirus vaccine-testing lab to support clinical studies. Along the way, this collaboration led to a number of important advances in support of vaccine development in India by Bharat Biotech International Ltd., Hyderabad. Clearly, this long-term collaboration has had spinoff effects that have been incredibly valuable in terms of training several researchers, publications and most important the prospect of developing a novel vaccine for the prevention of rotavirus diarrhea in India and beyond.

Rotavac is India’s first indigenously developed rotavirus vaccine, made with an Indian strain 116E by clinicians and scientists at AIIMS, New Delhi in close collaboration with CDC, Atlanta, an Indian manufacturer, Bharat Biotech International Ltd. Hyderabad, Indian clinical trials through an Indo-US partnership initiated by the Indo-US Vaccine Action Program (VAP) and strongly supported by DBT, the Gates Foundation, Program for Appropriate Technologies in Health (PATH), National Institute of Health – National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), USA, SAS, New Delhi, CMC Vellore, KEM Pune, THSTI Gurgaon, and Stanford University. The 116E vaccine has demonstrated good immunogenicity in Indian children and completed a Phase III efficacy trial. The analysis of the data is in progress.

Dr. T. S. Rao, Sr. Advisor, Medical Biotechnology Division with DBT is associated with the program since its inception and has worked closely with clinicians and scientists associated with the development of the rotavirus vaccine.

Gagandeep Kang from the Christian Medical College Vellore writes about the importance of research support for such efforts in the Deccan Herald  and again in The Hindu.  Kudos to scientists such as her who communicate their work and views.

Women’s day at the DBT, the Women’s bioscience awards and international perspectives

Here’s a post from Garima Gupta at the DBT, with some international perspectives at the end.

International Women’s Day, March 8, 2013, was celebrated by the Department of Biotechnology at the auditorium of the ‘Scope Complex’ close to the DBT headquarters in New Delhi. The programme started by welcoming three women advisers (among the senior most officers at the DBT): Drs. Bindu Dey, Suman Govil and Renu Swaroop. These officers told the audience about the challenges facing women in every aspect of their interactions in our societies. Referring to recent articles on women in science the Secretary DBT’s talk pointed out that practical issues such as maternity leave and child care are necessary, addressable with the will to do so and now required by law.  But, far more needs to be done, which is more complex to do.  More avenues and better mechanisms need to be created for facilitating women to take up careers   of their choice.  The discussions pointed out that   while no one cribs about mediocre men in senior positions, the issue of having reservations for women in top positions makes people squirm about the possibility of mediocre women occupying leadership positions!

Eminent achievers, both women and men (Dr. T. S. Rao from the DBT and Dr. Vir Chauhan from the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology) were invited for a panel discussion “Women in Leadership: whether there is a Glass Ceiling”. DBT has been path-breaking in government departments to have several women advisors and a woman Secretary Dr Manju Sharma. In the latest recruitment of officers about 50% are women scientists, who have been selected after an intense nationa competetion. Amongst the invited panelists was Dr. Malati Laksmi Kumaran whose impassioned talk held back nothing and stirred the audience. Ms. Deepanwita Chattopadhyay from the IKP knowledge park Hyderabad told the audience about working in a corporate banking environment, a citadel of male domination. She pointed out that ICICI, where she is from has a large number of women in senior positions, because, as their chairman said, they “simply chose the best available”. Here is an interview with Ms. Chattopadhyay.

The occasion was about time for DBT to formally confer its women scientists awards for 2010- 2012 (The award ceremony was much delayed, apologies to all and the ceremony for the other delayed Bioscience Award will be held soon). Congratulations to all the winners! Next time we’ll be on time.

From the international reports on women’s day, here’s  Fiona Watt  in the new open access journal eLife on her experience as a woman scientist and what we could do about hiring senior women scientists. Most of you would have read the series of articles in the March 7 issue of Nature on the subject. See, particularly the editorial, which advocates reservations in top positions for women in science and the contrary view of Isabelle Vernos . Your comments on all this and beyond are most welcome.

What the DBT is about

The Department of Biotechnology. 

It  is important that we keep in mind that the DBT is part of the Ministry of Science and Technology. Therefore, it is natural that all that we do and try is built on developing a strong foundation and capacity in the Life Sciences. A broad and deep capacity for research in the fundamentals of all of biology ensures that we can grasp new opportunities be they in basic science or it applications.

Today’s possibilities of applications in agriculture, health, energy, biotech all come from yesterday’s investment in basic science. If we are to be truly innovative in applications for our societies, we must develop a culture of fundamental research where we define and work on problems that are truly cutting-edge. Otherwise, we will constantly be borrowing or buying the fruits of basic research done elsewhere. This route, of building on the investment of richer societies in basic research, may be an option if our goal in science is to be a vendor of services, but is a shortsighted option even here. If we are to cater to the legitimate demands of our society, developing our foundations and contributing our share to the world’s intellectual growth, as we interact and collaborate, is the only route.  Future posts will elaborate on DBT’s substantial investments in basic biology in a whole range of ways.

Starting by stressing the importance of investment in basic science is not to say that quality applied-research or applications of science and technology will magically happen. Quite the opposite. A vaccine or a drug against a disease that is relevant to the developing world cannot be bought off the shelf. Neglecting to think and act towards developing and applying technology to sustainable agriculture or new bio-fuels or cheaper drugs, is suicidal.  If the science to embark on such projects is available now, we must embark on them speedily. These adventures are no less exciting and no less exacting than basic science. Indeed, the requirements of taking the route to seeing your research used places extraordinary demands that those of us in blue-sky research environments often do not appreciate. Here too, the DBT has the whole range of exciting programs that future posts will address.  While these posts on the specifics of what we are doing in basic and applied life sciences and biotechnology appear soon, your comments on what aspects of basic and applied-science India should invest and how we should go about it will be much appreciated.