Bean counting is fine Mr Modi, but also look at the ‘blue sky’

Every once in a while comes a researcher who by the sheer intensity of his visceral interest in a phenomenon, or a nagging question, changes the course of a discipline. Psychiatrist and bioengineer at Stanford University Karl Deisseroth is one such scientist. Former IISc director P Balaram, while introducing him at the TNQ-Cell Press lecture last evening, aptly compared his work to Galileo’s construction of a telescope using which the Italian astronomer, philosopher made pioneering observations about stars and the universe.

Deisseroth has enabled pioneering – making a single cell photosensitive so it can be controlled and studied at millisecond scale — observations about the brain. He has led the creation of a new discipline called Optogenetics and has developed a chemical engineering technique called CLARITY which, simply put, renders the opaque brain transparent, a see-through object which can then be studied with unthinkable thoroughness.

Over 90 minutes, Deisseroth walked us through the understanding of brain disorders over the past century. The JN Tata auditorium in Bangalore was packed, like bees in a honeycomb; it seemed Deisseroth had inspired one and all just by being there.

I won’t summarize his talk here, for two reasons. One, there are dozens of videos where he talks about his work in very non-geeky ways and this New Yorker profile from 2015 gives a peek into his personality as well. Two, the Chennai publishing company TNQ Books and Journals, which has been organizing and hosting this lecture series with Cell Press for six years, put a condition before the audience, like always. At the end of her inaugural note every year, Mariam Ram, founder and managing director of TNQ and wife of N Ram, former editor of The Hindu, formidably announces that recording of the lecture in any form is not permitted. When the lights are dimmed in the auditorium for the speaker’s presentation, if you are not recording, you can’t get anything worthwhile in long hand. TNQ also doesn’t allow media interviews. In 2008 when David Baltimore kicked off the lecture series, I was at Mint and tried very hard for a sit-down interview with the scientist but I wasn’t successful. (Those days I was also freelancing for Cell and tried that connection too, but no luck.)

Fair enough, if the organizers want it that way — exclusive access for The Hindu journalists — no complaints. In any case, isn’t media all about control these days?

However, one thing that struck me about his talk, and which Deisseroth also emphasized at the end, was how basic research in the microbial proteins rhodopsins – since they were first discovered in the 1970s as the light-driven ion pump – has enormously contributed to Optogenetics.

Publication timeline for microbial opsins and optogenetics over 45 years. Source: http://web.stanford.edu/group/dlab/media/papers/deisserothNatNeurosciCommentary2015.pdf

Publication timeline for microbial opsins and optogenetics over 45 years.
Source: http://web.stanford.edu/group/dlab/media/papers/deisserothNatNeurosciCommentary2015.pdf

 

This graph illustrates two points: That science stands on the ‘shoulder of giants’, one of whom is Deisseroth, of course. Secondly, how he, after first few years of struggle – from 2004 to 2009  when he was getting the systems and tools in place – propelled the field into a phase when not only have research findings exploded, they have begun impacting the understanding and practice of clinicians. (The Nature Neuroscience paper cited above contains all that Deisseroth talked about, and some more.)

I bring this up now because under Mr Modi, there’s a new focus on applying research to solve Indian problems. Early last year, Prime Minister Modi visited an energy research lab in Bangalore where he was told the direction of the applications would be clear in six to eight months. I learnt that after six months, the lab began receiving frequent calls from the PMO on the progress and that frazzled the researchers, most of whom do not have bench-to-market cycle in their scheme of things. Later in the year we heard about the Dehradun Declaration for CSIR ,where each lab has been asked to send a report card of its work, list the discoveries which can be commercialized, and prepare to become self-sufficient in two years. Budgets across sci-tech-health have been cut and if adjusted for inflation, most are in the red. (Why CSIR and how it came to this state of reduced-relevance is another story for another occasion.)

Who could disagree with the government’s desire to have Indian scientists and engineers solve Indian problems? But as the bean counting begins, let the decision makers not smother promising ideas and projects in basic research. Efficiency and accountability is one thing, expecting the road to innovation to be linear is another.

Modern scientific advancement is littered with examples where discoveries from completely unrelated fields have yielded useful, commercial results. Take the case of RNA interference, or RNAi, which is the basis of the so-called third-generation biotech drugs. RNAi therapeutics are expected to dominate the treatment regimen after 2020, a sort of post-biosimilars era. They arrived on the scientific application landscape when scientists were trying to manipulate the colour of Petunia – they wanted to make a really purple Petunia and added extra copies of the gene for the extra purple pigment. To their surprise, researchers found some flowers had patches of white and no purple pigment at all. It turned out, in their process of gene manipulation they had silenced some genes. Bingo! They had discovered a method by which genes could be silenced, as it is done in nature. From cancers to Huntington’s disease, the prospects of RNAi in silencing faulty, disease genes are profound.

Under Mr Modi the Delhi bureaucracy, or at least a major part of it, seems to be on steroids. I hope some of the technocrats are able to hold their ground and convince the government that blue sky thinking in Indian labs needs to remain ‘blue’, and not get cloudy.

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