Biotechwiz

News,Views & Insights on Biotechnology

The New Year has begun and this year, 2010 is to be celebrated as the year of Biodiversity. I am enjoying the delicious irony of this situation, as one of the most hotly debated topics today in India is that of the first- ever genetically modified food to be approved for direct human consumption in the world, namely the Bt-Brinjal. Also known as Aubergine, this humble vegetable is consumed across the length and breadth of India; we are home to about 2500 varieties of this plant.  I can think of no better mascot for Biodiversity than the Brinjal. One of the key aspects that is worrying people in India is the probable loss of indigenously cultivated varieties of this plant because of its GM cousin. The debate over the approval of the Commercialization of Bt-Brinjal by the GEAC in India continues to rage in all circles. Like all great issues, this one has united people in India across all sections of Society.

In October 2009, the GEAC in India cleared the commercialization of the genetically modified Brinjal, the Bt-Brinjal. The vegetable has been modified to contain genes from the Soil Bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. These genes encode resistance to certain pests of the Lepidoptera family of pests. However, immediately after this decision, there was furious opposition to it by farmers groups, NGOs and Environmental activists such as Dr. Vandana Shiva. The reasons? Well there were many. The failure of a similar non-crop plant, Bt-Cotton to deliver on its promises of pest resistance, the criminal pricing policy of the company involved in the marketing of both the crops in question, namely, the international biotechnology giant Monsanto, the increase in the cases of suicides of small and Marginal farmers in areas where Bt-cotton was being cultivated, to name just a few.

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Plant tissue culture (PTC) is a term most biotechnologists are well-acquainted with. This technology exploits what is known as the totipotency of Plant cells. Totipotency is the inherent capacity of each and every living plant cell, whether it originates from a leaf or stem or root of a plant to be able to give rise to an entire plant on its own. In short, I don’t need a seed to grow a plant. If I can  extract a set of totipotent cells from a plant and give it the right set of nutrients, the right temperature and day-night cycle and of course an optimal cocktail of hormones (Plant growth promoting), I can grow a complete plant out of those few cells. So I excise a small portion of the plant (leaf, stem, node, root etc) which is called the explant and then after carefully treating it with the proper set of disinfectants (to get rid of contaminating microbes) I inoculate it into media (liquid or solid) and provide it with all optimal growth parameters. Within a reasonable period of time I should be able to obtain plantlets out of my original explant. This is a very simplistic explanation of plant tissue culture.

From the time Gautheret worked with encouraging results in the young field of PTC in 1934 and the problem of tissue culture of plant cells was definitely solved in 1939, independently by Gautheret, Nobécourt and White, the field has come a long way. With more than ten thousand researchers actively engaged in this field of research1 the technique has undergone massive changes in method and application. From the more academic applications of trying to demonstrate totipotency and wound healing effects to generation of entirely new plants with the view to transplanting them in fields, we have witnessed the growth of an important tool of biotechnology.

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Bt- MagicIn a significant move, the Ministry of Agriculture in China has granted safety certificates to three genetically modified crop plants;two strains of GM rice and one strain of GM maize. This green signal will enable the commencement of small-scale field trials of these crops in China. This is interesting to those who have been following the intense debate raging over the GEAC’s approval to Bt  Brinjal in India. Though these approvals are only to start field trials and the actual cultivation of GM crops in China is still a far-cry, it will be interesting to see whether this move will have an impact in Asia as a whole with respect to GM technology. The two rice strains have been engineered to carry pest-resistant genes and the maize strain carries a gene that will improve phosphate digestion in animals resulting in better growth and reduction of Phosphate pollution. The former has been developed by Huazhong Agricultural University, and the latter by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. The approval had been granted in the month of August but it has become public only lately after recieving local media attention.

The move has drawn criticism from Greenpeace and other environmental groups that are strongly opposed to the use of GM technology. This also happens to be the first time that such a certificate has been granted to a staple food in China. The chair of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, Clive James, wrote in Crop Biotech Update that this is a move that will have a huge impact in Asia. Deeming the move as Global Leadership, he has envisaged an increase in adoption of feed crops as well as food crops in the region as other countries could be expected to follow China. Once again this reminds us that there are relatively few GM crops in the world that are produced for direct human consumption.

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dnaAs far as achievements go, this one is huge! Well maybe I am a bit biased towards progress in the life sciences vis-a-vis other fields. Be that as it may, even the severest critics will surely agree that this was probably the most quietly efficient achievements by our researchers. Two thirty-something researchers working with a team of researchers in Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), Delhi, over a period of close to 2 years, have furnished us with India’s first-ever complete Human Genome Sequence. Using a miniscule 10 ml of blood, scientists mapped out 99% of the genome sequence of a healthy man, 55 years old and a resident of Jharkhand in Northern India. The reason he was chosen for this endeavour, was that though healthy, he was very close to the onset age of certain critical diseases.

The complete sequence is expected to be out in the next two weeks. The two young scientists leading this effort were Dr. S Sridhar and Dr. Vinod Scaria. While the actual sequencing took only an unbelievable 45 days, the setting up of all facilities including software and analysis systems took all of two years. I am all the more elated about this achievement because ironically, India was not a part of the global effort of the HGP (Human Genome Sequencing Project) a few years ago. In an eye-opening article in the Hindu, the ex-director of CCMB, Dr. Pushpa Bhargava, holds the apathy of India’s apex Biotechnology body, the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), solely responsible for what she calls India’s missed opportunity. Citing hard facts and numbers, she builds a case for how India could have played an active role in the sequencing process and today would have been reaping benefits not only in terms of  the prestige in the scientific community, but also in terms of financial gains by patenting STRs (Short Tandem repeats) in the genome. This is exactly what has been done by Celera Genomics, the company that won the sequencing race.

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quest

Try your hand at Puzzle Over This! #4

Some Facts: Pill_opens

  • Spurious or fake pharmaceutical drugs (Medicines) are becoming a rising concern in the World.
  • WHO (World Health Organisation) defines a spurious drug as “a medicine, which is deliberately and fraudulently mislabelled with respect to identity and/or source. Counterfeiting can apply to both branded and generic products and counterfeit products may include products with the correct ingredients or with the wrong ingredients, without active ingredients, with insufficient active ingredients or with fake packaging.” 1
  • 35% of the world’s spurious medicines come from India 2
  • Drugs with insufficient active ingredients such as Antibiotics are leading to the rise of antibiotic resistant strains of microbes, known as superbugs. Some organisms such as MRSA (Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus are today the leading cause of hospital acquired infections.
  • A study estimated that in 2005, there were more than 18,000 deaths due to invasive MRSA in the United States 3
  • The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has called for all Pharmaceutical drugs, Biological products like blood ,etc. To be barcoded. 4
  • Japan calls for similar measures 5
  • India has no such policy provisions in the near future
  • Bar coding and RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) are being considered to prevent counterfeiting in the US and EU.

I was randomly scanning the news one afternoon when I came across some disturbing Statistics. The newspaper claimed that around 35% of the world’s fake pharmaceutical drugs came from India. The European Union, the US and Japan are seriously concerned about the increasing numbers of fake drugs entering organized set-ups such as Hospitals. Now, why should a biotechnologist be concerned about fake drugs? Well, there is a humanitarian concern, of course. Fake drugs are not like pirated movies or books. These drugs can cause serious harm to patients who depend on life-saving drugs for existence; these medicines can kill! Apart from this there is one area that is troubling epidemiologists, drug developers, Medical fraternity and researchers alike. That is, the emergence of Antibiotic resistant strains of deadly bacteria. These organisms, now known as Superbugs, are the cause of some of the most deadly Hospital acquired (Nosocomial) infections. One well-cited example is that of Staphylococcus aureus a gram positive coccus that appears like a bunch of grapes, it is a common cause of Skin ailments, suppurative infections of burns and wounds and Toxic shock syndrome (TSS). There was a time when antibiotics of the penicillin family could be used to cure these infections. However, in recent time, to our growing horror we have seen emergence of a strain of S. aureus that is resistant to the most strong of all drugs and that is methicillin. This organism that is now known as MRSA, (Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is responsible for around 18,000 deaths in the US, (Statistics 2005). There are many such organisms that have emerged in the recent past.

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Hungry_plant

Some Facts :

  • Bt-Brinjals approved for Cultivation in India by GEAC.
  • No GM food for direct consumption Is available in any supermarket in the EU
  • GM soya and GM corn are used as animal feed or in processed form only
  • The Cartagena Protocol has provisions that prevent Modification of Indigenous varieties of Crops
  • There is really no data available on the effects of the Bt-Toxin on Human beings
  • Eminent scientist and Chairperson of Moleular Biology at University of Caen in France, Gilles-Eric Seralini, pronounced the data submitted by Monsanto-MAHYCO as insufficient and misleading on several counts and the GEAC wanting in diligence.
  • He further hoped we would not turn our people into “lab Rats”

When I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, I was in school. I was fascinated by the world of genetics and genetic engineering and the prospect of solving major problems related to health and food security with a switch of a gene. Well yeah that was my concept of genetic engineering as a clear-eyed 13-year old. Brave New World hooked me because of what I deemed the author’s fertile imagination. Of course we would be manipulating genes, but that would be for curing cancer or Alzheimer’s, not for creating Alpha or beta babies, carefully selected by an authoritarian government in a high tech avatar of caste or race discrimination. What really hit home was this; in the real world, one may belong to a “lower” caste, or an “inferior” race, but what Nature gave you in a universal draw of lots was still yours, nothing or no one could take that away from you. But in the Brave New World, a nameless group of people with ulterior motives, picked and chose genetic traits and created a whole class of people who could or could not do certain levels of work. So, we had the Intellectuals and the Menials with a seemingly irreversible set of traits “given” not by nature but by man. This was what I believed would never really happen. What the hell are laws for? And are people of Democratic States not aware that “Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Democracy”? Then how would such people allow the creation of A Brave New World?  I guess I could be forgiven for such Utopian fantasies, I was just a kid.

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The detection and cure of cancer has become increasingly essential as a large number of people continue to succumb annually to this deadly disease. Treatment in the case of cancers poses a unique problem in terms of the high potential toxicity of many of the drugs currently being used in cancer therapy. Additionally, the fact that any method of killing cancerous cells also inevitably causes harm to normal, healthy cells and tissues further complicates the situation. Thus researchers have to find answers to some very crucial questions: First, can they reduce the effective dosage of the drug in question in order to reduce the magnitude of the damage to unwanted tissues? And second, can they control the release of the drug and or localize the drug to a specific set of cells within a tumour or in areas near it, thus preventing tissue damage? These are tough problems to tackle, especially when working with a complex system such as the human body. There is a limit to which one can reduce dosage, since one has to allow for loss of the drug through physiological processes within the body. Too low a dose might end up not really being efficacious. Localization however will end up solving both problems. If the drug can be localised, even relatively smaller doses can prove to be more efficient.

It was when I pondering over these problems that I came across some research carried out in the field of nanotechnology that was concerned with precisely the same problems. Researchers have come very close to solving the problem of localized and metered dosing of a drug within the body. This feat has been achieved by using gold nanocages. These cages are coated with a special type of “smart polymer” which can be induced to open or close using an external signal such as exposure to near-infrared light. These smart polymers are very apt for use in timed release of drugs.

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I recently read a press- release that very attractively used the term fly-paper to describe a novel invention by researchers at UCLA that can be used to grab maverick cancer cells circulating in the blood stream. These ‘mavericks’ I might add are known in Cancer jargon as Circulating Tumour Cells or CTCs. These tumour cells escape from an already formed tumour in the body and begin to circulate in the body via the bloodstream that involuntarily acts as a transport medium for these dangerous cells. The CTCs now form newer tumours in locations distinct from that of the original tumour, resulting in formation of ‘satellite tumours’ or colonies of tumour cells, giving rise to one of the most Distinctive and scaring features of a malignant tumour, namely, Metastasis.

A Cirulating Tumor Cell

A Cirulating Tumor Cell

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The Rogue Protein!!

1 comment

Swirl

I have always been intrigued by Disease and its Molecular underpinnings. Thanks to an explosion of technologies and branches of study we now know much more about disease and our response to them than we probably did a few centuries ago. The beauty, however, is that the more we unravel, the more twisted the problem seems to get. Just as we feel that we have begun to grasp the single unifying concept of an infectious agent, then along comes a startling new discovery and turns all our careful theories on their heads!!!

I have been longing to write on the current topic for a while now, and finally today I decided to take the plunge. So here goes, Prion Diseases. I am sure everyone has at least heard of prion diseases. Ok if not Prion, then at least the phrase “Mad Cow Disease” should definitely ring a bell. The unique aspect of this disease is very evident when one examines the extremely lucid definition of a prion given by the website MedicneNet.com, “A disease-causing agent that is neither bacterial nor fungal nor viral and contains no genetic material. A prion is a protein that occurs normally in a harmless form. By folding into an aberrant shape, the normal prion turns into a rogue agent. It then co-opts other normal prions to become rogue prions”.

The Deadly Prion.. The Rogue Protein

The Deadly Prion.. The Rogue Protein

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