Charting a New Frontier in Indian Medical Research

Charting a New Frontier in Indian Medical Research

September 23, 2021 | Author: Govindan Rangarajan, Director of IISc

In the summer of 1921, a young surgeon named Frederick Banting and his student Charles Best, working in the laboratory of physiology professor JJR Macleod at the University of Toronto, made one of the greatest medical discoveries of the 20th century. They were the first to extract insulin from a dog’s pancreas and use it to successfully reduce blood sugar levels in other dogs and later humans. Their efforts were epoch-making – before then, it was rare for people to survive for more than a couple of years with the disease. Now, over a 100 million diabetics around the world are able to lead a normal life, thanks to the development of recombinant insulin. 

A century later, the world – still reeling from the onslaught of COVID-19 – is poised to face even greater healthcare challenges in the coming years: antimicrobial resistance, emerging infectious diseases, lifestyle and environment-triggered diseases, and their impact on physical and mental wellness. All of these require dedicated efforts in fundamental research – delving deep into disease origins, transmission and progression – and innovation – developing drugs, vaccines and biomedical devices. 

Such efforts have largely been possible only in university hospitals (mostly in North America and Europe), which have served as academic cauldrons for ‘physician-scientists’ who flit back and forth between their clinics and research labs every day to find healthcare solutions. With India accounting for one-sixth of the world’s population, there is an urgent need to establish similar cradles for fundamental discoveries in medicine and a paradigm shift in the way healthcare innovation happens in the country. At the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), one of India’s oldest research institutions, we believe that we can be the pioneers leading this change.  

Established in 1909, IISc is known for its contributions to the growth of science and technology in the country, and for training generations of young researchers. It has conceived and nurtured several of India’s critical national endeavors, including the space and nuclear programmes. For decades, the Institute has also laid special emphasis on interdisciplinarity – research is not restricted to departmental silos and large-scale cross-disciplinary efforts have been greatly encouraged. 

In recent years, we have grown to realize that we should also divert our efforts towards clinical research for social good, particularly for the ‘next 6 billion’ people in developing and under-developed regions. With this goal in mind, we plan to establish a one-of-a-kind graduate medical school and 500-bed not-for-profit research hospital in our Bengaluru campus. 

At the proposed IISc Medical School, we plan to offer unique cross-disciplinary research training programmes, including a dual degree MD-PhD (MS-PhD), and new specializations such as Digital Health, Precision Medicine, and Medical Informatics. A healthcare and medical technologies incubator will also be established. The hospital is also expected to be a paperless digital hospital by leveraging appropriate IT infrastructure. 

Many world-renowned medical schools including those at Stanford, Harvard and Johns Hopkins have greatly benefited from being in the midst of a vibrant university campus, which offers tremendous opportunities for interdisciplinary training of physician-scientists. To develop next-generation healthcare technologies, vaccines and diagnostics – and prepare for future pandemics in particular – we need to blend basic science and engineering with clinical science. We also need an environment where scientists and doctors can work together to bring problems from the clinic to the lab and develop solutions that can be taken back to the clinic. 

Imagine these innovations arising from such a medical school: powerful antibiotics that can kill even the most resistant bacteria and viruses, nanorobots that can swim inside blood vessels and deliver drugs to treat cancer, AI-driven tools that can rapidly identify rare genetic disorders, artificial pancreas that can intelligently monitor and deliver insulin – all discovered, invented and nurtured in India for local and global benefit. 

Our fondest hope is that the IISc Medical School will catalyze a transformation in the country by blending science, engineering and medicine to bring quality and affordable healthcare to all. We aspire to develop a model of clinical research and training that can be emulated across the country. We also seek to set the tone for sustainable healthcare goals and policies for the entire nation. 

But we cannot do this alone. We need the generous support of philanthropists, corporates and well-wishers to help us make this ambition a reality. 

To find out more about the IISc Medical School and to become a valued partner, please write to navakant@iisc.ac.in


 

Prof. Govindan Rangarajan obtained an Integrated MSc (Hons) degree from the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani, and a PhD from the University of Maryland, College Park, USA. He then worked at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, University of California, Berkeley, before returning to India in 1992. He has been a faculty member of the Department of Mathematics, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), since 1992. He is currently the Director of IISc.