Several health and research policies in the country are either in draft stage or just recommendatory in nature. This hampers regulation of research and the people are sometimes cheated. Dinsa Sachan speaks to V M Katoch, director general of Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), on matters related to policy and research.
What’s the status of the National Health Research Policy? It has been in the draft stage for a while. When will it be implemented? How will it change the health research scenario in the country?
The policy has been prepared. It will be approved very shortly after we present it to the ministry. At the beginning of the new financial year in April, we’ll start implementing it. Currently, several departments and ministries are conducting health research. But there’s no synergy. This policy will bring a common objectivity and will be mission-oriented. Everyone will have individual contributions, but the country will benefit from the combined efforts. Work has already begun in this direction. Joint panels have been created. ICMR and Indian Council of Agricultural Research and Department of Health Research and Department of Biotechnology are already working together. Union ministry of health and ministry of science will together take policy decisions at the highest level when the policy is implemented.
Recently, there was a consultation on stem cell guidelines. When will be the new guidelines be ready? These guidelines do not deal with clinics who are using human embryonic cell therapy. Whose responsibility is to deal with these clinics?
The revised guidelines will be updated on the website by the end of this month. As far as unethical practices go, it’s because there is no structured pathway which people can follow. Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) mainly gives approvals for trials. Medical councils are responsible for monitoring clinics. If doctors are not following ethical practices, then medical councils should look into them. State medical councils should be the first to intervene. However, no codes exist, so we can’t say anyone’s violating the code. In this situation, everyone takes advantage. There are two pending bills, which when come into place, will change things. The Clinical Establishment Bill will make sure clinics have the necessary expertise and infrastructure to provide treatment for a particular condition. Similarly, another bill on use of human subjects in research will cover all areas including stem cell research. Both these bills will provide a strong regulatory framework in the country.
ICMR completed its 100 years last year. What is the goal for the next 100 years or so?
100 years is like a landmark, it’s not a biological clock. ICMR was started by the British to look at selected problems like infectious diseases and nutrition. Those challenges are ongoing due to climate change and poverty, but we are capable enough to handle them. But several new challenges have cropped up like ageing, mental health, oral health and gender issues. So we’re also transitioning to tackle these new set of challenges. Environmental health has become important. Last year we established National Institute of Environmental Health in Bhopal. In the last two years, ICMR has lavishly spent on open competitive research. We continue to fund core institutions, but we’re funding a lot more colleges outside of the purview of ICMR. Funding to external entities has gone up from 12 to 35 per cent in the last two years.
There are no regulations in place for use of nanoparticles in commercial items like garments, washing machines and foods. ICMR had asked National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research in 2006 to come up with guidelines of use of nanoparticles in drug delivery. What happened to it?
I cannot speak for decisions that were made before I took over in 2008. However, as of now, I can say we are making intense efforts to create centres for nanotoxicology. My current view is that ICMR should partner with other institutes to come up with guidelines on use of nanoparticles in clinical care. In fact, they should be made legally binding.
India has been declared polio-free, but the challenge of leprosy remains. How do you plan to tackle it?
The leprosy challenge will remain for 10 years. Endemic pockets remain, and there’s the challenge of connecting the people with the healthcare system. We’ve had major success in curtailing 97epr cent of the disease. Leprosy care is not vertical health care anymore, it’s more like general health care. This last phase of leprosy elimination is very important. We have to go forward in a concerted way, so numbers don’t go up.
We have come to know that ICMR is studying the impact of pesticides on health. Are the results out?
We’ve done a study on endosulfan before. Now in a few months we’re going to launch another huge study in five states across the country where pesticide use is rampant. So there you show the linkage between usage, presence in vegetables and fruits and their effects on health.
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