Interview: Dr Harsh Vardhan
Innovations are revolutionising healthcare in rural India: Dr Harsh Vardhan
Gunjan Sharma|
Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Union Science and Technology minister Dr Harsh Vardhan is of the firm belief that technological interventions and innovations can make healthcare affordable and accessible in India. His ministry has launched various schemes over the past few years to promote young scientists in the last couple of years with a view to promoting research and innovations.

In an interview with Gunjan Sharma, Dr Harsh Vardhan, who is as passionate about health as he is about science, talks about how researchers across the country —both young and experienced —are  working relentlessly to develop solutions for India’s myriad health problems. Excerpts of the interview: 

Your ministry recently launched many new schemes to promote young scientists. What do you intend to achieve and what are your expectations from these young scientists?

After I took over as science and technology minister, I travelled to all the laboratories and scientific institutes across India and met our scientists. They are immensely talented and have a great passion to serve the country. 

I feel that if our scientists work together in a time-bound manner with an objective to solve specific problems,  they can do wonders. 

To achieve this, we have launched several new initiatives such as the Early Career Research Award, National Post Doctoral Fellowship scheme, etc.
during the last four years to provide R&D opportunities to young researchers in various areas of science and technology. 

Over 3000 young scientists have already been supported.  JIGYASA, a scheme launched in 2017 by CSIR, aims to inculcate the culture of inquisitiveness and scientific temper amongst school students.  Nearly 25000 students and 2000 teachers from Kendriya Vidyalayas have visited CSIR laboratories since the launch of the scheme.

Similarly, Department of Biotechnology is implementing Star College Scheme to transform undergraduate Biotech education. Support has been provided to 150 colleges and Star status has been accorded to 26 colleges; over 2600  UG/PG students have been trained, and over 3200 candidates trained in biotechnology industries. These initiatives have resulted in India attaining the 6thposition in the world in scientific publications ahead of France, Spain, and Italy.

Health innovations can revolutionize healthcare in remote and rural areas. Are you happy with the kind of innovations taking place in India? What are your plans for encouraging health innovations and start-ups?

India has made significant progress in strengthening its health system to achieve better healthcare for mothers, newborns and children. Biotechnological tools have contributed immensely to the development of new medical devices and diagnostics.

These devices have the potential to greatly impact healthcare delivery in remote and rural areas. Many start-ups and young entrepreneurs are engaged in the development of affordable and low-cost technologies which will benefit Indian society and particularly those living in remote and rural areas.

Some of the devices developed include SOHUM—a low-cost, non-invasive device that screens newborns for hearing impairments within 6 months of their birth; and Brun Health, a low-cost labour monitoring device.

Another technology developed by CSIR is Integrated Micro PCR system with In-Situ Identification. It is low- cost, lightweight, battery-operated and portable, making it ideal for deployment in any type of setting, including primary health centers (PHCs).

The device uses a disposable microchip with pre-loaded reagents, enabling minimally trained users to perform PCR tests at the touch of a button. The test results from the Truelab device can be transmitted through its mobile-enabled data push functionality, allowing automated disease surveillance and rapid response to outbreaks and epidemics. There are many other such innovations which are revolutionising healthcare in rural India.

The eHealth Center (eHC), which is housed in a standard shipping container, can be quickly transported to remote areas of the country by air, rail or by land transport. It is a fully integrated cloud-enabled healthcare solution set up to provide affordable and preliminary healthcare in remote areas that have no immediate access to primary healthcare. The solution integrates medical instruments that collect basic patient health data with an eHC Health Cloud and enables medical diagnosis through remote consultation using built-in video-conferencing options.

This initiative is pursued by CSIR-IGIB in collaboration with Hewlett Packard for the fourth paradigm of science, data-intensive discovery while bringing affordable healthcare services to the doorstep of people.

One of the most successful case studies to represent the kind of innovation happening in India is rotavirus vaccine which has been developed indigenously and included in the universal immunization program.  Further, our start-ups have developed a large number of point- of- care devices and diagnostics which are now ready for a scale- up.

Dr Harsh Vardhan with young scientists

Genomics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are being hailed as the future of healthcare. How's India doing in these two spheres of emerging technology?

Recent advances in Artificial Intelligence have the potential to enable the access, affordability, and quality of healthcare within the country. The DBT has initiated activities involving relevant stakeholders to collectively define the roadmap for the county and to undertake a mission program on “Artificial Intelligence for Affordable and Accessible Healthcare- Big Data and Genomics”.

Disease cohorts and computational tools and bioinformatics centers can be leveraged to develop AI based health care solutions.

We are also actively engaged in discussion with the NITI Aayog to partner in promoting core and applied research, grand challenges for AI, decentralized training mechanisms, and three-pronged marketplace approach for data, annotation, and deployable models.

The CSIR-Institute of Genomics & Integrative Biology (IGIB) scientists are also working on genomics for personalized medicine. Their collaborative network includes pioneers in personal genome sequencing and analysis in India, and the collaborative network brings together the enormous expertise in clinical assessment, genome sequencing, analysis, and interpretation.
Do you think we need to bring scientists and clinicians together for a better output, especially in health research?

We are conscious of the need to bring scientists and clinicians to work together to bring a better output in healthcare research. Most of the programs being implemented in Medical Biotechnology and Healthcare Research have scientists and clinicians as collaborators to address basic and clinical questions.

The Biotechnology Department’s  Glue Grant Scheme provides for clinical departments of the medical schools and hospitals to collaborate with basic science departments of universities and institutions.  The idea is to bring them together on a common platform to address both clinical and basic questions in health research which could benefit the society at large.

India needs to develop newer drugs to deal with drug-resistance and rare diseases. Do you think the country is investing enough in applied research?

With the vision to foster innovative drug development, the DBT has established Centre for Chemical Biology and Therapeutics (CCBT) at Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine (inStem), Bangalore and Drug Discovery Research Center (DDRC) at Translational Health Science and Technology Institute (THSTI), Faridabad.

The government initiated a major Mission program on Antimicrobial Resistance in October this year. Our scientists are also working towards the development of new antibiotics and alternatives to antibiotics to counter antimicrobial resistance.  

Our scientists have been trying to develop tools to combat tropical diseases. Diseases such as dengue, malaria require scientific interventions to control the mosquito breeding. Please tell us about the research in this field.

Some important research initiatives and achievements for these diseases include one-day Dengue Diagnostic Test, which has been developed and introduced in the market. International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), New Delhi along with its translational research partner “Multi Vaccines Development Program” has developed advanced recombinant protein-based adjuvanted Malaria vaccines. 

JAIVAC-2 , a second generation P. falciparum vaccine candidate, is undergoing Acute and Repeat Dose toxicity studies. PvDBPII (P. vivax vaccine candidate) the Phase I first-in-man clinical trial of PvDBPII/GLA-SE in 36 healthy volunteers is underway.

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