Sudhanshu Vrati, Dean, Translational Health Science &
Technology Institute (THSTI), Gurgaon
Translational Research is headed to be the space
grabbing spotlight next; and is receiving impetus in the country. The
Translational Health Science & Technology Institute (THSTI) is an
institute that initiates steps in this direction.
THSTI will function from a unique Health Biotech Science Cluster (HBSC)
in Faridabad (Uttar Pradesh), being developed by the Department of
Biotechnology (DBT), Government of India. Currently located at
Udyog Vihar, Gurgaon (Haryana), THSTI will move in the next couple of
years to the 200-acre HBSC campus. HBSC will foster innovative
conceptual research in a wide range of biotechnology-related sciences,
with initial focus on health biotechnology.
A senior scientist at National Institute of Immunology (NII), New
Delhi, and actively involved with THSTI since 2005, Dr Sudhanshu Vrati,
recently joined THSTI as its Dean. In an exclusive interaction with
BioSpectrum, Dr Vrati, talked about the history, mandate and current
activities of THSTI. He also shares his opinion on the progress of
biotechnology industry in the country. Excerpts:
you elaborate on the idea and history behind THSTI?
The initiative was taken as the existing institutes in India do not
have adequate infrastructure to conduct translational research, and
lack the know-how and expertise, to promote it. I congratulate Dr MK
Bhan, secretary, DBT, for initiating this process. He has been working
on rotavirus and knows the difficulties of transferring from the
laboratory to the industry. That is how THSTI was initiated in 2005,
but the funding was approved only in 2007. Until recently, THSTI was
operating at the facility of the NII, New Delhi. The interim
laboratories were unveiled by Prof G Padmanaban, distinguished
biotechnologist, at Udyog Vihar, Gurgaon on March 29, 2010. “In a
couple of years, we will be moving to the main campus in the Biocluster
located at Faridabad, where currently construction is in progress.
is the structure and mandate of THSTI?
Essentially THSTI is made of three components – the first being,
Vaccine & Infectious Disease Research Centre (VIDRC) involved in
research in relevant areas of immunology, virology, microbiology,
structural, chemical and systems biology. Research areas in
host-pathogen interactions, covering the entire range of expertise and
interest; from statistical and epidemiological, to the cellular and
molecular levels will be considered. The second component is the
Pediatric Biology Center. Besides this, there will be a Center for
Biodesign that will focus on bio-devices and diagnostics. THSTI will
serve as an umbrella organization for all these centers, by the support
of the Faridabad Biocluster. Besides THSTI, the Biocluster will house
the UNESCO Regional Center for Biotechnology (URCB).
The mandate of THSTI will be to conduct innovative translational
research and develop research collaborations across disciplines and
professions; to accelerate the development of concepts into tangible
products to improve human health.
is the current focus of THSTI?
Our focus primarily is on doing fundamental work, recruiting competent
people and developing quality labs. Besides higher research, the
courses to be taught at THSTI would include a postgraduate course in
Translational Health Science.
Currently, we have recruited three assistant professors and one
professor, and three more are on the list. We plan to have at least 10
faculty members by next year. Of the 200 applications received, only
three candidates were selected. The idea is to go slow, and get the
best talent available. Our focus currently is on quality manpower,
capacity building and infrastructure. Besides that, we are focusing on
having our own dedicated faculty leaders, members and lab space. The
center would develop its own process. Our research at present, is
focused on contaminated water, which is the top concern in the country.
Viruses such as dengue and malaria are our main focus. We are also
working on a tuberculosis (TB) vaccine. Recently, a website for THSTI
has been made functional, and enhancements are being made, to increase
kind of collaboration would you be interested in, with the industry? Do
you feel the need for change in curriculum?
I feel we have to work hand-in-hand with the industry. We have been
working with Bharat Biotech on rotavirus vaccine development, which is
currently in phase III trials. Also, we are focusing on the most
prevalent viral diseases in India such as dengue and malaria. We are
trying to boost our manpower by recruiting people with the right
expertise, committed to product outcome, so that the industry does not
feel let down while approaching us for partnerships. The Indian
Institute of Technologies (IITs) and All India Institute of Medical
Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, are also collaborating with THSTI for the
Center of Biodesign that is being created as part of THSTI. This center
would mainly focus on biodevices and diagnostics.
If we compare the allocation of space to biotechnology companies in
Biotech Parks and the Faridabad Biocuster, the expertise is a major
missing link. The development of requisite expertise for product
development, is a focus area here, at THSTI.I feel the present
curriculum is up-to-date. We need a variety of subjects in the
curriculum, because students require the temperament for research in
biotechnology. Almost 90 percent of the students are unemployed. This
is because the fundamentals are unclear, and most public and private
institutes lack the required infrastructure to impart this. The right
training, I think, is missing.
is your opinion on the progress and hiccups in the Indian biotechnology
industry? Do you think there is a need for changes, in the regulation?
There has been a sea change in the last five years in research
facilities and infrastructure. There was a time when funding was an
issue; but now, the real issue is quality manpower. Most professors at
universities have limited industry knowledge. Competencies required by
the industry are different, than what is taught in the classroom. The
industry wants manpower and the academia is not providing this.
Hopefully, in the future some industry knowledge will be instilled in
On the regulation front, I feel we are following the regulations in the
west; while actually, the need of the hour is to have our own set of
regulatory guidelines. For example, JE Vaccine is treated as a
Biosafety Level 3 (BSL3) in the US. It is exotic in US, but found with
high frequency in India. Therefore, we should not be bound to conduct
research in BSL 3, in India. This is just one of many such examples.
According to my understanding, we should be able, and willing, to
change regulation, depending on the need and the situation.
are the challenges that researchers face in India?
The lack of availability of quality equipment has to be addressed.
There are many bureaucratic hiccups that hinder researchers. It is
surprising that we import water baths and centrifuges from China, when
we can invent and manufacture them here. I wonder why we cannot invent
and develop good biosupplier equipment in India itself.
Proper monitoring of the funds needs to be done by the DBT. There
should be greater accountability for universities; besides stringent
checks on recruitment. Presently, a number of biotechnology colleges
have mushroomed; and most universities have started courses, without
adequate manpower and infrastructure. These institutes need to be
better monitored by the government bodies.
kind of translational model is being followed by THSTI? Are there any
time-bound projects that are followed upon?
The onus of THSTI is mainly on the product outcome, and definitely not
on the publication of papers. We will have a mix of both fundamental
sciences and translation of basic ideas into something that benefits
the common people.
However, setting deadlines for product outcome is not realistic in
cases like developing a vaccine. The appropriate measures to achieve
the outcome will surely give an opportunity for substantial experience.
in New Delhi