‘Make in India’ will forever remain only as a catchy slogan if India cannot provide funding to translate promising health research into technologies and products.
When was the last time you heard of a path-breaking health technology, technique, procedure or product coming out of India? Is science and technology funding provided by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Department of Science and Technology (DST) going to waste when hundreds of researchers provided with huge grants are unable to come up with a single technology or product that would be widely used in clinical settings around the world?
There are at least a handful of researchers in India who have been doing excellent work and have even carried out trials on animals but unable to take it forward for want of funding. The last known case is of Dr. Navin Khanna of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) in New Delhi who had developed a promising tetravalent dengue vaccine candidate (DSV4). He was unable to carry out trials on monkeys for want of funding. But fortunately for Dr. Khanna, not all was wasted for want of funding. In October last year, the ICGEB tied up with Sun Pharmaceutical to develop the vaccine.
And now it is the turn of Prof. Rohit Srivastava of the Department of Biosciences and Bioengineering at IIT Bombay to desperately hunt for funding to carry out human clinical trials.
Prof. Srivastava and Dr. Abhijit De from the Molecular Functional Imaging Lab at ACTREC, Tata Memorial Centre, Mumbai led a team that has successfully used thermal ablation to burn cancer cells. Trials on cancer cell lines and mouse model have shown very encouraging results. Unlike in the case of surgery, photothermal ablation can burn out oral and other cancer cells by shining near infrared laser on a gold nanoparticle-coated thermoresponsive polymer nanoshell. The nanomaterial can also be loaded with an anticancer drug to ensure complete destruction of cancer cells.
The technique is safer, quicker and cheaper to treat patients with oral cancer. And thanks to tobacco chewing, oral cancer patients are in millions in India and there is a desperate need for a cheaper treatment. Photothermal ablation can be used for treating other cancers too, such as cervical and breast cancer and even tumours which are located deep inside the body.
Unlike surgery, the photothermal ablation procedure takes very less time. Once the nanoparticles are injected at the site of the tumour, one has to wait for 15-30 minutes for the nanoparticles to settle and spread in the cancer cells before shining the laser for 3-5 minutes. “In 30-40 minutes we can deliver effective treatment to individuals and thus as an outpatient service one can treat up to 15-20 patients a day easily,” says Dr. De.
In a rather unusual Facebook post, Prof. Srivastava is now urging, nay pleading, industries and State governments to provide nearly Rs.7,00,00,000 (70 million Indian rupees) to help the team conduct Phase I trials on humans. This in short is the grand old story of scientists in India struggling to translate their research into products and technologies.
I am told that DBT and DST do not provide funding for preclinical (animal) and clinical trials. If the remit of DBT and DST is provide funding only for research and not translating the research into products, should we not have some other body to provide funding for translation? Else, what is the use of funding researchers?
Unlike in the west, India does not have huge foundations that can liberally fund promising technologies. I may be wrong, but I have never heard of Indian industries donating any money liberally for research. The Indian pharmaceutical industry is quite wary of even promising work by Indian researchers and less inclined to collaborate or take the risk of carrying out human clinical trials.
Will we end up seeing the team transferring the technology to a multinational company to carry out the clinical trial, and if successful, offer the technology back to Indians at a huge price?