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2014—A midterm outlook

Rapid Fire
  • Maternal and child health central
  • New programmes galore
  • Old programmes see new direction
  • Support for research on cancer and plant pest interaction

The recent budget for 2015–2016 sets a trajectory to science and technology in general and biotechnology in particular.

Global partnerships under India’s stewardship will help transform the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) into a world leader, five research centres will be strengthened, more IITs and AIIMS like institutions will be set up, new biotech clusters will be developed in Faridabad and Bengaluru, existing agri-biotech clusters scaled up and new ones established in Pune and Kolkata. In short, institutional development by other ministries and the S & T ministry is a major thrust for DBT and other science agencies next year.

However, post this budget announcement, it is time to take stock of how far DBT has sailed and the direction it has taken so far this year. A relook at the path taken will help see the future ahead.

These years has witnessed many major initiatives mature and grow substantially.

Priorities- Mother & child, sanitation

Health of mothers and children-yet to be born and newly born, health, along with the development of vaccines, occupy centre-stage in the medical biotechnology.

Research programmes on nutrition have been launched with a view to address intervention in woman and child health.

A programme aiming to understand the disease biology and characterize pre-term birth on the basis of its causes has been launched this year and has gained momentum over the months. It will involve a five-year programme of support to address the problem of pre-term births, which causes around 300,000 neo-natal deaths in India annually.

The Department aims to address the challenge of open defecation through re-inventing the toilet and is triggering new technologies of treating human fecal waste by using it as an energy source.
Along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it has launched a programme last year to support talented researchers to conceptualise prototype and field-test highly innovative ways to process human waste for sanitation service delivery.
Few innovative ideas of bio-toilets that use less water and energy and requires minimal maintenance received support and a toilet fair was held this year to showcase of the best technologies.

Infectious and lifestyle illnesses in the mother and child are a major cause behind stunted growth in children. Most of the damages caused are irreversible and hence needs to be nipped at the bud. A new programme starts in 2014 that researches the link between early nutrition and brain development of the foetus as well as cognitive impairment of the new born.

New road for existing programmes

New paths are being defined in existing programmes. Tissue bio-banks for cancer and other diseases are being developed, as is a major clinical and translational programme in cancer research and in disease biology and vaccine design. A new programme on training of clinical researchers is trying to address the shortage of clinician scientists.

High-end technology platforms and training programmes are helping in escalating plant biotechnology and agriculture research. New programmes focus on understanding how plants and pests interact with each other. This knowledge can help our search for new molecules and drugs as well as ecosystem conservation efforts.

Marine biotechnology, Bioinformatics and ‘Big Data’ are on the anvil of new institutional directions. The latter two are expected to have a wide reach by the end of 2014.

The Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) is playing a key role in stimulating the biotech sectors. The new agenda on the list is to make latest high-end technology available to entrepreneurs through partnerships and social-entrepreneurship. Late 2014 are expected to witness development of bio-energy sources through synthetic Biology and new directions in ongoing efforts in secondary agriculture.

DBT is also ensuing collaborations with other departments and ministries to expand the base of quality basic and applied science across the country.