'In genetics, the ethical choice lies with the people'

A professor of molecular biology and virology at the Salk Institute at La Jolla, USA, Dr Inder M Verma is also the chairperson of the Scientific Advisory Committee (Overseas), Department of Biotechnology, Government of India. At the 16th International Congress of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology held in Delhi in the third week of September, Dr Verma presented papers on his research work in gene therapy and cancer. One of the foremost scientists of Indian origin in the US, he speaks to ANJANI KHANNA about his work in this relatively untapped field.

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

What is your main area of research ?
I have been working in the US since 1967. My main scientific interest lies in oncogenes -- genes that cause certain cells in the body to become cancerous -- and in gene therapy. Gene therapy is an exciting new area of research which allows the correction of genetic defects, and also the ability to interfere with acquired diseases like cancer. One of the problems of cancer is that the immune system is weakened. By putting genes into the tumour cell, one can strengthen the system and increase the immune response of the body. The altered tumour cells thus act as vaccines.

What kind of research work is going on in gene therapy?
Efforts are being made to reduce genetic defects. For example, attempts are being made to treat haemophilia, cystic fibrosis, and aquired diseases like cancer, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. In Parkinson's disease, for instance, we can introduce a particular gene which can produce a certain chemical in the brain which is necessary to correct the disease. This ensures a permanent supply of this gene product. There are nearly 100 human trials involving gene therapy and the majority are on cancer.

Another area of importance is the detection of genetic diseases. Screening ensures that children are not born with genetic diseases, because it is easier to prevent a birth than to correct the defects afterwards. In India, bio-techno centres in Chandigarh, Bombay and Calcutta have been opened to detect genetic defects.

But, in India, isn't it likely that such tests would raise ethical questions?
Yes, but you can only advise people. In the end, the choice lies with the people. I firmly believe that the mother has the right to make a choice, and what she decides to do with her foetus is her business. We as scientists have no business to enforce a decision. But, as yet, this is a relatively rare feature, and is only likely if you have a genetic disease, or are predisposed to certain diseases.

In India, we don't have such worries at the moment. The worries are simpler, but you're right: there are ethical issues connected to this. But my feeling is that in India, there is a need to be more concerned about having systems in place before we worry about what their implications are.

Do you really feel that gene therapy has any relevence in the Indian context?
Yes, there is relevence. It is basic science and I think we should build the ability to do basic science in the country. But I don't think that it should be given the prominence that is needed for vaccination, clean drinking water and feeding children. If it comes to providing clean water versus correcting genetic disease for 6 children, I think my preference would be for the former.

Are there risks involved in gene therapy?
There are risks involved in any manipulation. Aspirin has risks, penicillin has risks, but all one can do is to minimise them. I think that in the end it is the question of the risk to benefit ratio. And depending on the risks involved in each case, doctors and patients will have to make appropriate decisions. So, although I think that it is important to consider the bio-ethics of the situation, I believe that one has to take it in proportion. I am for moderation in every case. I don't think we should stop anything. And I don't think we should advance anything.

Is it true that pharmaceutical companies are not sponsoring research on certain infectious diseases despite the growing evidence of antibiotics resistance in a lot of microorganisms that cause these diseases, simply because the companies don't have a financial interest in this area?
Yes, that is so, but the interest has been rekindled now, because doctors and scientists have found that AIDS patients who are susceptible to tuberculosis are contracting forms of the disease that are resistant to antibiotics. And they have suddenly become interested in TB.

But I think that it is important for each country to do its own research, in areas that are relevant to it. There are diseases which are unique to India, kala azar, for example. We cannot import the technology, because that is available only for the standard diseases.

So I think it is unfair to say that the West has no interest in these areas. Western pharmaceutical industries are interested in making profits, and they are unlikely to want to sell something for which there is no profit. Humanity calls for them to be interested in it, but we should not expect it.

How can science and technology research be improved in India?
There is a need to improve basic science and technology in the country, because my belief is that unless we have the basics right, we cannot go about applying science to address our needs. At the moment, everybody is so gung-ho about biotechnology. There is an impression that they can do just biotechnology, but what they need to have is an enormous amount of basic knowledge to make a success of it. Until we build a base, we will end up only importing technology.

Part of the problem is that all the research in India is done in research institutions and not in universities. The ultimate reservoir of talent really lies in the universities, and efforts to build a strong scientific base there must be made.

How do you rate the progress made in the past 40 years?
We have made tremendous progress. To think that prior to this, we had no infrastructure! It is true that we are slow. In India, we do not have a culture of science. And it takes a long time to build a nucleus of science. We have enthusiastic young people, we have money being poured into it, we have a resurgence of interest in science. I just hope that we don't get deviated by doing what I would call applied science that we forget that it is on the shoulders of basic science on which applied science can be carried out. I am very optimistic because the Indian scientific community is eager and there is money being devoted to it.

Is there enough money to do good science in India ?
No country has enough money. But I think I can say that if in India somebody wants to do good science and has a good project, they will get the funds. Money is not the major impediment. The impediment is the intellectual limitations, the lack of a scientific nucleus and lack of infrastructure.

Are you saying that there are certain scientific priorities that we are ignoring in India?
I don't know all the priorities in India. Certainly, agriculture and human health have been given predominance; animal health has also been given predominance, but surely the problems are more massive. We have 22 million births each year and we need 22 million vaccines each year, and just that is very difficult to do. The magnitude of the problem is so overwhelming. But, overall, I am very optimistic. I believe that India's educated community is for science. India's political leadership may be diverse and not terribly educated, but they at least have a feeling for it.

Do you think that India is losing its best scientists to the West?
Although there is always this brain drain question, I think we should also worry about the brain which is here. Even if 10 per cent of the scientists sent out come back, I think it would be wonderful. Personally, I think I can contribute a lot from outside the country. I help train people, I help people to be trained, I help them when they go to the United States and provide guidance on what areas to study and research. I have given all the help I can, but that is not a substitute for somebody coming back. I admire the people who have the courage to actually do that.

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