The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, visited the Bangalore Biocluster campus to interact with the researchers there and for discussions on the challenges facing modern biological research in the country. He was greeted by Biotechnology Secretary Prof K VijayRaghavan, Prof Satyajit Mayor, the Director of NCBS and inStem, Prof Upinder Bhalla, Dean, NCBS and Prof Apurva Sarin, Dean inStem from the BioCluster and taken to some of the laboratories to see cutting edge stem cell research. He then had a vibrant and truly interactive engagement with faculty, students and staff at the Biocluster, on subjects ranging from international collaborative research, the use of stem cell based therapies and scientific outreach.
The Bangalore Biocluster campus houses a cluster of institutions that together enable a diversity of research approaches where basic and translational science can synergise with each other. Pioneered by TIFR-NCBS which nutures individual laboratory based science (TIFR-NCBS), India’s first Stem Cell Institute (inStem) supports theme-based research, both of which are made possible by cutting-edge technology delivered by CCAMP. “This environment has the potential to do transformative work. The potential for doing biology that is informed by our local environment, whether it is our ecological or the clinical environment is now a reality.”, says Prof Mayor.
Setting up of this cluster has required both the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) to collaborate in creating a unique research environment where a diversity of research approaches can be used for gaining an integrated view of life processes. NCBS undertakes basic research in frontier areas of biology at scales from molecules to ecosystems. According to Prof Bhalla, “Our research is driven by the spirit of discovery and lays the foundation for building national capabilities and innovation. We believe that “Make in India” needs “Discover in India”.” It is this spirit of discovery that paved the way for the creation of inStem and the collaborative programs there. inStem supports research in areas which have both scientific importance and the potential for benefits to human health. “We use a team-based approach to address problems requiring diverse inputs beyond the scope of individual effort.”, says Prof Sarin. A further step to take discovery closer to innovation is the creation of CCAMP at the Biocluster. “CCAMP catalyzes this with discovery to innovation programs, incubation, and mentoring programs to entrepreneurs and start ups. Technology and innovations that emerge, could eventually influence several spheres, including healthcare, nutrition and agriculture.”, says Prof S Ramaswamy, the CEO of CCAMP.
Shri Modi was interested in knowing how Stem Cell research could aid in the curing of diseases such as Brain Disorders and identify new avenues for therapy. He was keen to understand how stem cells offer a way to treat many hitherto untractable diseases. Several such efforts are currently under way at the Bangalore Biocluster. “Disorders of the brain pose a major and growing health challenge to India. Hence, inStem and NCBS are teaming up with NIMHANS to build a comprehensive research program in translational neuroscience to accelerate the discovery and delivery of effective therapeutics for these largely untreatable neuropsychiatric conditions.“, says Prof Sumantra Chattarji, the coordinator of CBDR at inStem. The collaboration between inStem, NCBS and NIMHANS is a bold program builds on collaborative links between basic researchers at the Biocluster and clinicians at NIMHANS. It aims to devise novel solutions for diagnosis and treatments of neuropsychiatric problems. Cutting-edge stem cell technology will be used to derive patient neuronal cell lines for genetic analysis and cell based assays in conjunction with information from large scale clinical analysis and this would collectively enhance understanding of the relationship between cellular phenotypes with disease progression. Dr Alok Srivastava from the inStem-CSCR and CMC Vellore described developing gene therapies for the treatment of hereditary genetic disorders of bleeding such as hemophilia as well as the common inherited hemoglobin disorders such as thalassemia and sickle cell anemia. There were discussions on the prevalence of these diseases in the Indian population.
Shri Modi expressed much interest in knowing more about current efforts aimed at preserving the country’s natural heritage and in particular species facing extinction. Dr Uma Ramakrishnan spoke about the incredible biodiversity in India and described her work using genomics and gene sequencing to look at the past, present and future of our natural heritage including tigers, plants, birds and other species. “This helps us devise conservation strategies and understand the vulnerability of ecosystems to environmental change.”, said Dr Ramakrishnan. There was a discussion on the recently established Chemical Biology program at NCBS and Dr Shannon Olsson provided her perspective on the unique opportunities and resources India provided for researching questions on the chemistry of interactions between plants, animals, microbes and other species.
Dr Sunil Laxman, a faculty member recently recruited to inStem, described his future work at the campus. “Cell growth and function is regulated by nutrients. When this ability to sense and respond to nutrients is lost, cells may grow or develop unchecked, resulting in several diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. We study how these processes are regulated“, he stated. Mr Modi was keen to know about the transitions of researchers such as Dr Laxman in moving back to India after significant periods of training overseas. Dr Darius Koester, a German national currently pursuing postdoctoral research, added to the discussions commenting on the rich environment in science offered at the Bangalore Biocluster. The understanding of the Indian diabetic was also discussed and NCBS’s collaborative program of lipidomic research with the Max Planck Institute may play a vital link in the exploration of clinical cohorts who are being studied by researchers at St Johns Medical College.
During the course of his visit, Shri Modi reiterated the need for supporting Indian “discovery science” in the context of boosting the national economy. He emphasized the need for spreading scientific temper amongst the school-going generation and for strengthening science as a viable career option. There were discussions on the quality of science based television programs, school curricula and other outreach tools. Shri Modi also generously took the time to reach out to the large number of early career researchers who play a crucial role in developing the scientific programs on the campus and are the key beneficiaries of its varied capacity building efforts.