A winner of the 1995 Norman Borlaug Award for her contribution to the field of agricultural sciences, MANJU SHARMA is secretary to the department Of biotechnology. INDIRA KHURANA spoke to Sharma about the department's accomplishments and plans for the future
On the mandate for setting up a separate DBT:
Realising its immense potential, both developed and developing countries are looking towards biotechnology to provide eco- friendly and environmentally- safe technologies for sustainable development of the agricultural, industrial and health care sectors. The department of biotechnology (DBT)was set up in 1986 to serve as a strong and co-ordinated biology base for the development of such technologies. It also serves as a nodal point for international collaborations.
On the DBT's major contribution to agriculture:
The focus has been on developing and improving the nutritional quality of some crops using genetic engineering. Transgenic tobacco plants produced by the DBT are being field-tested. These are serving as a model for the production of insect-resistant, transgenic cotton plants containing the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene, using our own cultivars. Transgenic rice and mustard are also being field-tested. The DBT has also developed biopesticides for pest management and bio-fertilisers to promote organic fanning and reduce the dependence on agrochemicals. In the field of animal biotechnology, we have successfully developed embryo-transfer technology for cattle, a kit for embryo sexing, a low-cost feed for shrimp, a spawning agent for fish and diagnostic kits for cattle and poultry diseases.
On the possibility of these transgenic plants being wiped out due to susceptibility to diseases or pests:
These plants will be transferred to the fields only after evolving appropriate pest resistance and management strategies and satisfying all biosafety and transgenic containment protocols. In fact, trials for transgenics; are approved by committees that have been set up for the purpose.
On major achievements of the DBT in the health care sector:
A number of diagnostic kits and vaccines have been developed. These include six prenatal kits for ducherme muscular dystrophy and beta- thalessernia. The technologies for Hiv-i and ii diagnostics have been transferred to the industry. A leishmaniasis detection kit and vaccine have been developed and are undergoing clinical trials.
A major breakthrough has been the development of a novel drug delivery system for the treatment of leprosy, whose technology has been passed on to industry and the clearance for which is expected from the drugs controller of India by December, 1996.
On the DBT undertaking programmes for the upliftment of the rural population:
Although this was not a part of the mandate of the DBT, we have developed and transferred a number of proven technologies - dealing with biopesticides, biofertilisers, mushroom cultivation, sericulture and the cultivation of medicinal and aromatic plants - to the rural poor. We are also undertaking counselling for genetic disorders. Fifteen tribes have been screened for genetic disorders.
On the pursual of efforts towards regional co-operation among developing countries:
The South Asian Association for Regional co-operation (sAA-Rc) countries have submitted a proposal to set up a sAARc Biotechnology Council to co-ordinate activities in the region. The G-15 countries, under the DBT, have set up a project for the inventory and establishment of gene banks, and for exchange of information and training.
On such co-operation running into conflict with intellectual property fights and patenting, and on the exchange of germplasm:
The G- 15 countries have decided that the exchange of germplasm will be conducted as per laws existing in the member countries. For example, India has a list of medicinal plants which cannot be exported and so their germplasm will not be exchanged.
From the time of its conception to the end of the eighth Five-Year-Plan, Rs 594 crores will have been spent on biotechnology by the DBT. On the justification of such investment from the point of view of the results obtained:
I do feel disappointed that the transfer of technology from the laboratory to industry has not been up to the mark. So far, 17 technologies have been transferred and two products are out in the market. To facilitate such transfers, a number of steps, like industry participation right from the initial stages, are being undertaken.
On the DBT's agenda for the next Five-Year-Plan:
We have submitted an ambitious outlay of Rs 1,000 crore for the next plan period. Some of the priority areas identified include biodiversity conservation and environment preservation, the setting up of Genetic Enhancement Centres and Genetic Counselling Centres for prenatal diagnosis of diseases like beta-thalessemia.
On whether any research on human genetics is on the anvil:
We have set up a task force for human genetics. We have to develop a strong base for understanding our own genetic make-up to comprehend the diseases we suffer from.
On the patenting of cell lines that may emerge and be of economic significance:
The DBThas a limited role in policy formulation. We can only provide technical inputs to the ministry of industry. However, we have started a patent cell and developed a set of guidelines which have been accepted by the ministry. As per existing laws, we cannot patent live forms or file a product patent in the case of pharmaceuticals, food or chemicals. Also, no gene or sequence is patentable as of today. We have sent a set of guidelines for biotechnological patenting of modified microorganisms to the ministry. We hope that they will incorporate it in their guidelines.
To prevent the unautborised export of our genetic material, we are holding a series of meetings to devise methods to prevent this. We are working towards promoting a patent culture among scientists. Since biotechnology is a patent-driven industry, we have to strengthen our research base and bring out patentable products. Our bioprospecting programme of identifying new active molecules aims at doing just that. Plant identification, conservation and characterisation must remain the topmost priority.
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