• 7 December 2005
  • News
  • By Rolly Dureha

Life Time Achievement

Life Time Achievement

Life Time Achievement

Dr NK Ganguly

A Walking Encyclopedia in Disease Research

Extremely busy yet very accessible, a visionary with a direct approach and a truly gifted medical person. Such is Prof Nirmal Kumar Ganguly, the present Director General of Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). He has been the major force in giving a modern shape to one of the oldest medical research bodies (ICMR) in the world.

You have come at the right time. Today is the last day of my term here. So please be prompt as I have a lot of work to finish today" said the smiling ProfNirmal Kumar Ganguly, Director General, Indian Council of Medical Research when we visited his office in the early hours on November 10, 2005. These words capture the essence of Dr Ganguly's persona - humble, dynamic, straightforward with a focused attitude.

Born in the pre independence era, Dr Ganguly did his MBBS from Kolkata and MD in microbiology from the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGI), Chandigarh. He started his professional life as a teacher but went on to test new horizons during his career - assistant professor bacteriology; associate professor parasitology; professor immunology at GB Pant hospital; professor experimental medicine and later professor biotechnology at PGI Chandigarh. With the development of new subjects he moved on to new arenas to test and develop them. "It has been very evolving", commented Dr Ganguly.

Essentially wanting to build up science and students, he was happy and contented with his academic endeavors. "It has been a very rewarding experience. And although I got selected as director of several research organizations both in CSIR and ICMR, I never took up those posts as I thought that there is more challenge in working on the bench", shared the eminent medical scientist. Then came the turning point in 1998, when, almost seven years ago, Ganguly was shortlisted for the post of the Director-General of ICMR. "When I was offered this post, it was really a testing situation as to what should I do...should I join or not. There was a huge dilemma as every medical scientist in the country looks up to the DG, ICMR and I could not disappoint all of them. That would have been too much...so I took over the position", he reminisced.

But even after Ganguly took over as DG, ICMR his passion for research did not diminish. He maintained his link with PGI and fulfilled his academic activities in the evenings via email and went to Chandigarh on weekends to work with his students. This showed in his publications too. When he left PGI, his research papers were close to 550 or so, and today the total number stands at 700 as the rest of the publications came while he was working as DG ICMR.

When Dr Ganguly joined ICMR, he faced a lot of challenges. The budget of the council was only Rs 33 crore with 26 affiliated institutes, which amounted to not even Rs 1 crore per institute. And the council was not only a funding agency for the institutes but was also involved in a lot of other activities too. Within these years, Dr Ganguly managed to enhance the yearly budget to Rs 250 crore and got an international review committee set up to review the activities of the council. The committee has not only lauded the work of ICMR but has recommended that the annual budget be hiked upto Rs 1000 crore along with addition of 500 new scientists. When asked as to how he overcame the hurdles in the way, he answered philosophically, "You will always face hurdles, whereever you are, even in simple things. I really do not look at any hurdles. If I want certain things to be done, I first create a strategy, then a plan of action and finally move on that. Normally if one is well prepared, the plan goes through. I have discovered that you cannot do something, only if you are not convinced about your plan."

Some very important national facilities like the BSL-3 facility in Pune, the primate breeding facility at Sasunavgarh and the BSL animal facility at Agra were created during his tenure. Sophisticated instruments were procured in many of ICMR labs and new buildings have come up in each of its institutes. Understanding the importance of public money, Dr Ganguly initiated a lot of study on resource flows in order to maximize the leverage of public funds. This helped the council in taking evidence based decision and do clear disease setting.

Fact File Dr NK Ganguly

Position: Director General, Indian Council of Medical Research

Date of Birth: November 11, 1941

Academics: MBBS from University of Kolkata, MD (Microbiology) from PGI, Chandigarh and DSc (h.c.) from Bundelkhand Unviersity, Jhansi; Chhatrapati Shahu ji Maharaj University, Kanpur and University of Calcutta, Kolkata

Major Research Areas: Tropical, cardiovascular and diarrhoeal diseases. Area of specialization is infection and has interest in this area, which ranges from immunology, biotechnology and public health.

Awards & Accolades: Dr Ganguly has won 83 national and international awards. Notable among them are 2004 Norman Alpert Award, Goyal Prize in the area of Applied Science (2002); INSA's Shanbu Nath De Memorial Lecture Award, 1993; Dr Yellapragada SubbaRow Memorial Lecture, 1999; Om Prakash Bhasin Award in Health & Medical Sciences, 1997; Ranbaxy Research Award, 1996; FICCI Awards, 1998-99; Fice ICMR awards; and Prof. Niranjan S Dhalla Award for lifetime Achievement in Cardiocascular Pharmacology of the Indian Pharmacology Society.

Other Hats: Chairman, Lancefield International Society on Streptococci and Streptococcal Diseases; President, International Society of Health Research (Indian Chapter); President, Academy of Cardiovascular Sciences (Indian Chapter); Vice-Chairman, Joint Coordinating Board for Special Program for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases; Honorary Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bangalore.

Papers and Publications: Work cited in 7 books; 292 national research papers and 395 international papers; Written chapters in 20 books; Guided 130 MD/MS Thesis and 130 PhD thesis.

An ardent motivator, he was the single largest factor in lifting up the level of scientific study being done at the ICMR institutes and this was reflected by the above average impact factor achieved by many of its institutes. "We got many more patents in the last one year than those put together in the past 30 years", he commented. And gradually modern biology and science started flourishing in the ICMR.

Besides scientific and clinical research, Dr Ganguly also channelized the attention of ICMR on some important socio-economic issues like gender related problems, access to major technology and translational research so that the technology reaches the common masses. In these new areas, the council started testing waters and made its presence felt. Giving the example of Polio, Dr Ganguly said, "We have now become the global reference lab and have been able to introduce for the first time polio virus surveillance in India. All the polioviruses isolated in India and abroad are sequenced over here. Hence immunization decisions are made from the kind of information that we obtain and epidemiology and environmental monitoring is based through these sequences." His approach was not only to surmount the disease challenges within the country but also to solve the problems of the other regions as well by providing the necessary scientific support.

Though on the professional front, Dr Ganguly gained a lot and is now influencing a lot of international decisions, this had its flip side too. "It is a haze of daze from morning to night and you just do not have a personal life...that is one casualty and nor do you have a family life", rued the ICMR chief.

Speaking about his role models, he said, "Some of my earliest role models were my teachers. Later, since I spent most of my time in PGI and sometime in ICMR I was deeply influenced by Dr PN Chuttani, former director of PGI, Prof V Ramalingaswamy, Dr C Gopalan both former DGs of ICMR. I have seen all of them working from very close quarters and they have given me tremendous learning.

An outstanding researcher himself, Dr Ganguly has been a recipient of more than 80 national and international awards. He is a fellow of all academies including the Third World Academy and has been elected the president of many national and international societies like the Indian Research Science Congress, National Academy of Medical Sciences, Lancefield Society on Streptococci and Streptococcal Diseases, amongst many others. He has mentored about 158 PhD students and nearly 300 MD students.

Despite the numerous national and international accolades and recognition, the role of a teacher and his contact with students stays closest to his heart. "That is the biggest learning curve that one can have as students are young, more inquisitive and think more originally. The only thing they need is a little guidance from the experience that we have. That is definitely the most satisfactory part of my life. Students trust you for everything they do and it is very touching. That is indeed the best thing that I have received in my life and that is why teaching is my first passion", said the eminent scientist.

When we were about to leave, we learnt that Dr Ganguly had got an extension of another year as DG ICMR to further continue and consolidate the excellent work being done there.

 

Rolly Dureha

"Our aim is to influence the policy decision which is needed by the people"

What is your vision for the country?

This is a great time for the country. Our growth rates are good and we have a major global presence. Now we need to take the country forward on the path of integrated economic development, which means that science and technology should reach the poor. We should address their needs and promote research on diseases afflicting the poor and link it with education, particularly that of young people, so that we get a huge power house of growth. Then, of course, we should improve our benchmarks in every area like, health, education and bring them as close to international standards as possible without sacrificing our cultural needs. I see a tremendous future but a totally different role in the coming years.

What have been your significant achievements at ICMR?

We have developed important vaccines and diagnostics sets, some very important drugs many of which have gone to the commercial houses and then back to the patients.

We have also put in a lot of money for clinical research and started a lot of drug trials. We created centers of toxicology, centers for drug trials, both in the traditional and modern mode. One of our crowning glory was the oral Kaala Azar drug Miltefosin for which we did the clinical trials and it has become a global drug now.

We developed the area of clinical drug trials in the county and later on put the industrial regulation in place and then became a major technical arm of the Drug Controller General of India. We have also started looking at bringing the important vaccines needed in India and have been working on very large international vaccine trials in the country, which will be very beneficial, like the cholera and salmonella vaccine trial, aerosol measles trial. We started the Hib trial for the combination vaccine and have also started two HIV phase one trials. Finally with Merck, we are planning to do a HPV trial for cervical cancer. Thus in the clinical research board for drugs and vaccine, we put in tremendous amounts of efforts that have succeeded. Significantly, we could bring more than the entire amount of our budget from the external sources.

Today ICMR has become one of the major powerhouses of ethics and decisions related in ethics and policy not only in India but also in the world. Some of the other policies that we have concentrated on are the GM food ethics policy, in vitro fertilization policy, nutrition policy and oral rehydration fluids.

We pooled in our expertise and set up a nationwide surveillance for influenza, measles and Japanese encephalitis. These along with our teams for outbreak investigation and disaster management have really helped in many tricky situations. One of the many things of which we are proud is the fact that we identified the Chandipura virus.

We are not lacking in some of the newer areas as well. We did the first electro differentiated stem cell transplantation in aplastic anemia patients. We put in efforts in introducing the newer areas in medical research and therapies. We also created a section on social sciences and gender. And these sections have helped us in introducing HIV related products for the affected people, tackling the intervenous drug users around the city.

We have also tried to address the millennium goal and one of our major projects in this area is how do we reduce infant mortality in the first six months by 25 percent during the next five years. We have developed several innovative programs in this area, like giving home care, the ability of giving gentamycin right at the doorstep, a good referral, endotoxin buster, use of probiotics for preventing sudden death in children and introduction of the Hib vaccine or a combination vaccine to tackle some of the causes of death in children. For women, we have been pioneers in championing the emergency contraceptive, safe abortion, tackling cervical cancer by raising the level of reproductive health, papiloma vaccine introduction and influencing people to get marriage after the appropriate age. These millennium goals have been very important for us because these directly lead to development and growth.

We have also created the databases that could be used by the country. Our databases are on the cancer registry, cancer atlas which were entirely done by the IT enabled mechanisms and the database on the nutrition monitoring bureau. We are now creating databases on diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

So overall ICMR has done all these things in the last 7-8 years and created a niche for itself in the international community.

What kind of role do you envisage for ICMR in the coming years?

ICMR is different from other organizations in that we are not only a science body or a science research body, we also have to do the implementation of the operational research, social science research, policy research and create a very strong government partnership with the health ministry. Ultimately our aim is to influence the policy or the decision or implementation of the important goal, which is needed by the people.

Actually ICMR is on a launch pad now. It has come to a level, has a springboard and now we are ready to dive. The council has the mandate of getting a very large budget now. So the future is to more few notches up - to complete international standards and benchmarks. And while doing that, our aim will be not to get alleviated from the masses for whom we are working. Hence, whatever we do should affect the life of the people of the country positively. Currently we are much closer to that goal than before.

 

What they said...

Dr MK Bhan, Secretary, DBT

Dr Nirmal Kumar Ganguly is a very unique kind of a medical person. He has had a broad education in medicine, microbiology, science and is probably the best informed medical man in the country on the issues of science, technology, ethics and societal development. He has this incredible reach and insight into so many areas. A truly outstanding interdisciplinary person. Some of his most outstanding characteristics are that he is very nationalistic, incredibly accessible and a tremendous networker. In the field of infectious diseases, he has done outstanding research himself and created an outstanding lab at PGI, Chandigarh. He has mentored hundreds of students and has left a lasting impact on ICMR. He is one of the most successful Director Generals of ICMR. Not only is he extremely gifted but also a great resource for the country. He has a phenomenal memory and incredible energy and it is difficult to run a committee in the country without him. A truly outstanding person and also a great friend.

 

Dr G Padmanaban, Distinguished Biotechnologist and Honorary professor, IISc

Dr NK Ganguly is a walking encyclopedia in disease research from clinical to molecular aspects. While his own research contributions span a large spectrum of infectious diseases immunology, his breadth of knowledge has been a source of inspiration for the entire research community. He has modernized and galvanized the ICMR and its institutes to address both problems of public health research and drug/vaccine discovery using modern biotechnology tools. His advice is sought after nationally and internationally in a wide variety of areas including basic and clinical research, epidemiological studies, public health R&D initiatives and industrial development in the pharmaceutical and biotech sectors. His close interaction with the DBT has facilitated initiatives to convert basic research into applications in the country. His contribution to address issues of ethics in biomedical research is very significant. He has strived hard to improve the research infrastructure and research environment in medical institutions.

 

Dr RA Mashelkar, Director General - CSIR

I have known Dr Nirmal Ganguly for a number of years now. In a lighter vein, I was mentioning to someone that most of us are made in an assembly like mode by God. Once in a while, God seems to have time on hand and creates a special human being. Dr Nirmal Ganguly is one such person. He combines the qualities of innovation, compassion and passion, like very few that I have seen in my life.

Dr Nirmal Ganguly is a prolific researcher with over 600 research publications, through which he has made pathbreaking contributions to the understanding of infections, diseases and their cure. Science is at his heart. Delhi can be stressful for any science administrator, but especially for one, who deals with public health issues; a SARS outbreak in China can consume all your 24 hours! In spite of this, Nirmal has got his science going. Does one realize that in the year 2004, he has nine research publications of great merit and quality!

Dr Nirmal's leadership for the Indian Council of Medical Research has been absolutely exceptional. He has turned ICMR around, not only through his innovative and bold leadership – but also by raising the investment levels in medical research by several folds. I am indebted to him for the guidance he has given to CSIR in various capacities including as the Chairman of CDRI's Research Council.

As Indian drugs and pharma industry begins to discover new molecules, we are realizing how critical ICMR's role will be – and Dr Nirmal Ganguly has been providing a great new direction.

Among eleven Mashelkar Committees, four have dealt with the aspects of health, biotechnology and drugs and pharma. Dr Nirmal Ganguly was a tower of strength for me as a member of these committees. You could rely on him for an unbiased opinion solely focused on national good.

Dr Nirmal Ganguly's personal attributes of conviction as well as courage are legendary. At the height of the controversy on animal trials activists, he was bold enough to comment that the animals being tested live under better conditions than those in our slums! This required great courage.

I congratulate BioSpectrum for honouring itself by honouring Dr Nirmal Ganguly – so exceptional is the life and the work of the man!

 

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