Science is a small thingIT’S a small world after all. Definitely for scientist Murali Sastry (45) and his team of 16 20-something PhD students, hopelessly in love with all things small — like bacteria. They use bacteria and biology to make things in enigmatically smaller sizes.Think of particles thinner than a strand of human hair. A space where three to four atoms fit end-to-end. Think nano.
Nanotechnology — the ability to make products of unimaginably small sizes with atomic precision — is ending up worldwide on labs-on-chips, car bumpers, longer-lasting tennis racquets, golf balls, sunscreens to burn dressings. It’s causing a scramble to pre-fix and book Nano names for companies.
Almost a decade since nano research arrived here, India averages 20 nanotech patents annually. ‘‘India holds an absurdly small number of nano patents,’’ says Sastry, a nano-scientist at Pune’s National Chemical Laboratory (NCL). ‘‘We are behind the rest of the world by at least six years.’’
BUT a steady revolution is in progress. Among clusters of India’s limited but prized pool of nano-workers, from Pune to Kolkata, Bangalore and the IITs, the urge to catch up is feverish.
Nanotech Nano denotes a billionth of a metre — 1/80,000th the width of a human hair. Any product that has a characteristic that involves measurement at or below 100 nanometres falls under nanotechnology. Scientists say India’s nano patents are still in the nano league. About 20 filed per year. ‘‘It should have been done earlier,’’ C.N.R. Rao, chairman, National Initiative on Nano Science and Technology told The Sunday Express from Bangalore. ‘‘Nanoscience and nanotech is the new revolution and India has to be a major part of it,’’ Rao is firm. ‘‘We want to provide facilities for precise, better quality work. And hope to invest Rs 100-200 crore next year.’’
INSIDE a bright NCL lab open 24/7, decorated by Dennis the Menace posters, Sastry’s nanoscience group wants to put DNA — the carrier of genetic information — on a chip.
As a pharma tool it could diagnose genetic disorders typical to India. Like thalassaemia, the debilitating blood disorder.
When ready, Sastry’s two square centimetre chip will be a platform to carry arrays of DNA sequences for genetic analysis. ‘‘Once we get analytical instruments we’ll prove to pharma companies that the concept works as a diagnostic tool.’’
Limited tools partly explain why chemistry scientists are going back to nature. Soon optical coatings on glass windows to block harmful sun rays and cool tropical homes — no more expensive air-conditioning! — could have a bit of of lemon grass grown in a local garden. It’s almost green chemistry!
Sastry’s group plucked extracts of lemon grass, rustled up some chemistry with gold ions and produced millions of gold nano triangles. ‘‘Lemon grass has the ability to bind to gold, it permits some shape control,’’ explains Sastry.
Cheap and environment-friendly, the invisible gold nano triangles could also aid cancer treatment. ‘‘Potentially, nano triangles can transfer heat to cancer cells and kill them,’’ says Sastry, 10 US patents under application.
For Biocon’s Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, biotech’s road ahead is ‘personalised medicine’. And a million jobs in five years EVER noticed the gold-like titanium nitride coating on watch straps, door knobs and cutting tools? At the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) metallurgy department in Bangalore, professor Vikram Jayaram’s team wants to make the coating harder and more wear-resistant, with tens of hundreds of layers, each of nano dimensions.
The team’s collaborating with a Mumbai company. ‘‘The company makes coatings, we study them using tools that probe very small regions,’’ Jayaram (48) says. ‘‘We can precisely push into a region a few nanometres deep and measure hardness and elasticity. We then see how it has broken or deformed by using ion beams to machine the surface and electron microscopes.’’
A new IISc nanoscience centre with equipment worth crores is nearing completion. ‘‘Too much excitement,’’ says A.K. Sood (53), divisional chairman, physical and material sciences, IISc. ‘‘Nanoscience is moving very fast worldwide.’’
SOOD works on carbon nanotubes. Estimated to be 50,000 times smaller than human hair, ‘‘carbon nanotubes are a fertile ground for the next five years with applications from aerodynamics, the chemical industry to TV screens’’. Sood emphasises the thrust on biology. ‘‘It’s important to use nanoscience cum biology to make devices.’’
‘‘Most nano applications are futuristic,’’ warns Sastry. ‘‘They take five-six years to reach market stage. Unfortunately our industry rarely risks innovations.’’ But coming up, says Rao, are ‘‘nearly 10 new nano centres, conferences, major research grants, workshops to educate teachers and students.’’
To India’s science of small things, this will be the giant leap forward.
Reading the genomepatri‘‘IF we ask health policy-makers which is the most prevalent genetic disorder in India, they have no answer.’’ The problem vexes Seyed Hasnain, director, Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics in Hyderabad.
Now imagine a google-like desi storehouse of genetic disorders that are prevalent nationwide and almost always curable if detected early.
Bioinformatics Bioinformatics Development of new tools to analyse an explosion of data from molecular biology, like the genome database. A combo of biology and powerful software. The tool — a mix of biology and software — is breaking ground in designing new drug molecules, generating genomic data. It’s called bioinformatics.
Working toward such a database, a CDFD team screened 25,000 newborns in Hyderabad’s government hospitals over the past four years. The common pattern: iodine deficiency.
‘‘Unfortunately we have no such data for the rest of India,’’ says Hasnain.
TO fill the gap, in 2004 CDFD collaborated with Sun Microsystems and the Andhra Pradesh government for a National Centre of Excellence for Clinical Bioinformatics, to be inaugurated in March 2005. Biotech Biotech Application of a collection of techniques using cells and biological molecules to make antibiotics, insulin or even fix genetic defects. India holds 120 biotech patents. Feeding the database will be 30-odd diagnostic and testing laboratories nationwide, backed by funds from the Department of Biotech and the Indian Council of Medical Research. ‘‘Unfortunately bioinformatics researchers tend to use more infotech and less of biology. The reverse works,’’ says Hasnain.
One in 3,300 children are born in Andhra Pradesh with primary congenital glaucoma — a condition that causes blindness but is surgically preventable if detected early.
CDFD’s sample test to identify victims early has saved eyesight for a few hundred children. ‘‘These children seem normal but could go blind by age 12,’’ says Hasnain. The team’s now probing the mutation behind glaucoma, and its protein structure.
AKHILESH Pandey (37) enjoys nothing better than a high-protein fix. His world dances around proteomics or the study of proteins produced by genes.
Pandey’s 13 researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine at Maryland, the US, and 70 scientists at Bangalore’s relatively new Institute of Bioinformatics (IOB) are gearing to profile the activity of 30,000 genes. Simultaneously, in normal tissue and cancer tissue.
‘‘At IOB we are going to spend a minimum of US $ 500,000 annually,’’ says Pandey, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins and chief scientific advisor, IOB.
IOB recently completed development of a plasma proteome database with grants from the Human Proteome Organisation. It was aimed at complete characterisation of proteins in human plasma.
Over 60 labs globally came together to answer one question: how many proteins are actually present in plasma? IOB’s job was to create a database where information gathered could be stored and accessed at will.
The genome — DNA content of the cell — still holds many secrets yet to be deciphered, says Pandey. IOB researchers have located 43 genes never predicted by any group. ‘‘We can validate or refute some findings of the West. We just need more skilled hands.’’ And soon, drugs’ll get personalIn 2003, India topped the biotechnology patents issued by the US Patent and Trademark Office. Our modest BSc degree was never so hot. ‘‘Biotech can potentially generate revenues of $ 5 billion and create one million skilled jobs over the next five years,’’ says Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, chairman and MD, Biocon India, Bangalore. Biocon, a front-runner with 25 biotech patents granted to date, has filed for 270 patents. That’s over twice the 120 biotech patents India now holds. Academia is also closing in, with industry collaborations. In Hyderabad the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) filed 60 national and international patents over the past three years. ‘‘We are interested in working on new pathogenic forms of micro-organisms that cause tuberculosis, AIDS and malaria,’’ Lalji Singh, director, CCMB, Hyderabad, told The Sunday Express over e-mail. THE new glamour buzz from biotech is personalised medicine. Or relatively affordable drugs tailor-made to suit specific genetic profiles ‘‘Personalised medicine is certainly of interest,’’ says Shaw. ‘‘What we intend doing is initiate efforts in personalised medicine through disease registries in diabetes and oncology. Our diabetes registry is more advanced and our collaboration with Strand Genomics has yielded valuable data in personalised medicine.’’ MEANWHILE CCMB is churning out new data from every maverick stream of biology. There’s a probe of genetic diversity of tribal and caste populations in India with the Anthropological Survey of India, and a new laboratory to conserve endangered species. The Department of Biotech has a hand in the lab, coming up near Hyderabad. CCMB scientists now know Indian lions, tigers and leopards are fertile. Nevertheless, they have created sophisticated semen banks for these wild ones.