Editorial: Biotech in India – History, present and promises

Biotech processes are not new to India.Yoghurt has been a part of virtually everyday diet in most parts of the country for at least five millennia. This would also be true of indigenous alcoholic drinks – both distilled and un- distilled. Some of these drinks such as liquors made of betel leaf, cardamom, mango, and cer- tain birds and flowers, are truly exotic.

But all this was based on em- pirical knowledge without any understanding on how the pro- cess led to the product. The biotechnological revolution in the second half of the last centu- ry – which India joined some- what late – was based on the commercial exploitation of bio- chemical or biological processes which we understood. Some of these processes (e.g. the emer- gence of the yoghurt industry) were natural whereas others, such as genetic engineering, were purely man-made.

Biotechnology in India is based on a network of nearly three hundred national labora- tories and about an equal num- ber of universities, though the lion share of contributions is provided by a very small fraction of these public-funded institu- tions. The national laboratories operate under various depart- ments or agencies of the Gov- ernment of India, predominant- ly the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the Department of Sci- ence and Technology (DST) and the Department of Biotechnolo- gy (DBT), among others. All of them have contributed to the emergence of biotechnology as a major technological area in the country. Furthermore, the bio- technology industry has played a significant role in the network- ing of many public sector research laboratories.

India is uniquely placed for the development of biological technologies. Some of these ad- vantages are listed below:

(a) India has some three million trained scientists and tech- nologists, including a net- work of highly trained and creative scientists in virtual- ly all areas of modern biolo- gy.This number is way above the critical mass required for the development of biotech- nology even in a country as large as India.

(b) India might be the only country which has a sepa- rate department of biotech- nology under the federal government. One of the fore- most activities of this de- partment has been to fund separate biotech depart- ments in most of our own good universities, thus con- tinuously generating trained scientists.

(c) The cost of production – and thus the retail price – of drugs in India not covered by patent rules has in some cas- es been as low as less than 1% of their cost in the United States. The production of the first genetically engineered product in India by Indian technology, the hepatitis B vaccine, reduced the price of the drug more than 50-fold.

(d) For public benefit, India sought cooperation with de- veloping countries to com- plement its own assets and those of an other developing country. Thus the Cuban technology for making mon- oclonal antibodies has been exploited through a fair agreement with an Indian company (Biocon) for com- mercialization.

(e) In spite of India being a de- veloping country, its rules in certain crucial areas of biotechnology have been liberal. Thus it is easier to work on stem cells in India than in the USA, or to prac- tice assisted reproductive technologies than in the UK.

(f) India is one of the world’s top six countries regarding the extent of biological di- versity. This provides India with a wealth of material to exploit through modern biotechnological methods.

(g) India has, perhaps, the largest human biodiversity in the world – some 450 mi- nor ethnic groups and near- ly 40 major ethnic groups. It has an extensive disease profile, a large number of naïve patients of various dis- eases, a large number of very well-trained clinicians and efficient clinical research or- ganizations which, in combi- nation, make India a pre- ferred country for clinical trials and clinical research.

(h) India has a coast line of 8000 km length with an amazing wealth of marine organisms.

(i) It has five traditional sys- tems of medicine – Ayurve- da, Unani, Siddha and Tibet- ian which are documented and undocumented tribal systems; together, they use almost 10 000 different plants and well over 40 000 distinct formulations.There are valid reasons to believe that at least 4000 of these formula- tions may turn out to be ef- fective if tested through the stringent system of stan- dardization and validation accepted worldwide today. Given that, in average, less than 25 new substances are introduced into the drug market in the world every year, the traditional systems of medicine in India may be a storehouse of products of the future. Their commer- cialization requires much biotechnological effort – e.g., stabilization of the formula- tion.

(j) Some of the indigenous technologies India has de- veloped, such as for DNA fingerprinting, have led to a revolution in areas such as forensic medicine in the country. The DNA finger- printing technology can be widely used to identify plants and animals. India al- ready has a National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (documenting and storing close to a couple of million entities) as well as a Nation- al Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources.

(k) India is one of the leading countries of the world in the development of computer software and thus eminently poised to be a leader in bioinformatics.

There are, of course, drawbacks as well. Regulatory systems in India not only for biotechnology but also in related areas need improvements to be effective and to ensure safety; further- more, there are bureaucratic hurdles and corruption which destroy many worthwhile pro- jects. However, taken together, the assets outnumber the liabil- ities. The continuing political support to biotechnology during the last nearly three decades is specially encouraging.

This issue contains articles and write-ups which will give the reader a flavour of the fron- tier areas of research relating to biotechnology in India. It offers reviews of research and techno- logical developments important to the country which describe the country’s role in these devel- opments, gives a historical per- spective, shows the regulatory scenario and the problems and profiles of some successful biotechnology companies in the country.

We hope that this issue of the Biotechnology Journal will not only lead to better understand- ing of what has happened and is happening in biotechnology in India but also increase interna- tional cooperation with Indian biotech organizations.

Reference: Editorial: Biotech in India – History, present and promises. P.M. Bhargava and N. Suresh, Biotechnology Journal, 2009, 4, 286-287.

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