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India is not just a premier vaccine manufacturer, it can develop new vaccines too

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Dr Renu Swarup, secretary of the government’s Department of Biotechnology, talks about the state of Indian health technology and what the future holds.

The Organisation of Pharmaceutical Producers of India (OPPI) has come out with a new publication, In Science We Trust. The book, available online, is aimed at promoting science in the field of medicine, and contains interviews from leading scientists, government officials, and leaders in pharma in India today.

The following extract, reproduced verbatim, is an interview with Dr Renu Swarup, secretary of the Department of Biotechnology, under the Ministry of Science and Technology.

What role does science play in alleviating the disease burden of the world? Name three areas of significant contribution.

Response: The role of science & technology is enormous in human, societal and economic development of the world. If we see in past, the practice of immunisation dates back to hundreds of years, however, 19th and 20th centuries saw systemic development of several important vaccines viz. Anthrax, BCG, Plague, inactivated Polio Vaccine etc. Vaccination has made an enormous contribution to global health. Through vaccination, smallpox was eradicated worldwide by 1980, and polio cases declined by 99 per cent.

The beginning of the 20th century, the average human life expectancy even in the industrialised country was 45-47 years whereas in India in year 1950 the same was 31 years and less than half that in the US (68 years). With the antibiotics revolution in late 1940’s and further, development of novel antibiotics during 1950 to 1970 revolutionised the treatment of infectious diseases. Now, the life expectancy at birth in India has increased to 69 years and Science and Technology development in India have contributed immensely to improved healthcare, from improved devices, diagnostics and implants, the country has witnessed a large transformation through development and delivery of improved innovative affordable and accessible healthcare products and technologies.

India is a hub for vaccine manufacturing, 1 out of every 3 doses of vaccines administered globally is manufactured in India. Our recent success in academia driven indigenous vaccine production – Rotavirus has given us an added confidence that India is not only a vaccine manufacturer but has capacities for indigenous new vaccine development.

A major technology which has made significant contribution in alleviating the disease burden and has revolutionised the dynamics of healthcare is the recombinant DNA technology. Today, 8 out of 10 blockbuster drugs are developed and produced using biotechnology based tools and techniques including recombinant DNA technology. In India there has been a major focus on biotherapeutics. The National Biopharma Mission – a recent initiative of Department of Biotechnology aims to promote an innovation ecosystem for development of new innovative biopharma products and strengthening industry – academia partnerships, also allowing start-ups and entrepreneurs to take forward their research.

Science has been working steadfastly to usher improvements in the health of humanity, name three big areas of the future that can positively impact the health of people across the globe?

Response: The three potential big areas of the future in healthcare are: Gene editing technology including Personalized medicine or precision medicine, Artificial intelligence & Big data and technologies to address Anti-microbial resistance.

One such growing area of interest is the gene editing technology? How do you think it can impact human lives?

Response: Gene editing is boon for monogenic disorders which are the result of a single defective gene on the autosomes. 5,000–8,000 monogenic diseases, defined as inherited conditions arise from mutations on a single gene.

Further, this technology has wider application in stem cell therapy, gene therapy and personalized medicine. It would be interesting to see how advancement of in the field of gene editing technology motivates adoption of this technology and addresses societal and ethical concerns associated with its application in the laboratory and in the clinic.

What is the role of academia in encouraging science based medical research?

Response: Academia plays an important role in taking forward science based medical research. The science based medical research benefits from the insights academia brings on fundamentals of medical science along with an understanding on interdisciplinary sciences. The challenge of course is translation of these research outcomes. For this Industry-Academia partnership needs to be strengthened. It is also important to build Academia-Industry science clusters which allow seamless interaction between researchers, clinician, hospitals and industry. Research has to be need based and for its effective translation deep engagement with all concerned key player is crucial, only then we can see the fruitful results. Department of Biotechnology and its Public Sector Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council have played a major role in creating this ecosystem in the country. Having built strong Human resource and infrastructure capacities in academia research institute across the country, there has been a major effort to promote Industry-Academia partnership. The Translational Health Science and Technology Institute was the first cluster set up by Department of Biotechnology on Translational health research. The Clusters at Kalyani and Bangalore also focus on connecting the Academia and Industry for Translational Research. Effort is now being made to have the start-ups become an integral part of this and link research innovation to translation to clinical validation to scale up and finally manufacture.

Academia has a great responsibility to produce skilled and research minded workforce and also has capacity to innovate for development of new products and medicines to cater to the healthcare need. It is necessary that we should inculcate a culture of quality clinical research among physicians and promote innovative research & development activities in medical colleges.

Innovation is closely linked with a robust policy environment that supports it? What in your opinion are the three points that India needs to focus on to become a nation that respects, protects and rewards innovation?

Response: In India, the S & T innovation ecosystem is being supported by forward looking initiatives of Government of India such as: Startup India, Make In India, Digital India initiative etc. India has moved up 3 places from 2017 and ranked as the 57th most innovative country in the world. The last few years has seen India being recognized as a nation which is fostering and nurturing innovation. The key areas that we need to focus on are – rewarding high risk innovation research, strengthening industry – academia partnership and making available opportunities for investors to bring in investment for high risk innovations specially to cover the valley of death.

What is your advice to the young scientists of the country?

Response: The Science and innovation ecosystem in the country today is at the most exciting period. Young scientists of the country are doing wonderfully well and it is evident from the growing numbers of startups based on science & technology and further, by increasing number of technologies commercialized by the research institutions. They have passion for science and my advice to them is to complement this passion with dynamics of societal need, intellectual property, translation science and commercialization acumen; not as an individual but as a team. This can build a great connect with the society and make S & T based innovations as a major contributor in growing economy.

This excerpt from ‘In Science We Trust’ and has been published with permission from OPPI.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the excerpt was from ‘How to Grow Fresh Air’ by Kamal Meattle and Barun Aggarwal. This has been corrected to ‘In Science We Trust’. The error is regretted.

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