• 7 December 2005
  • News
  • By Rolly Dureha

Person of the Year

Dr MK Bhan

Person of the Year

Dr MK Bhan

Shaping Technologies into Real Life Programs

Dr Maharaj Kishan Bhan is one of India's most outstanding clinical scientists. As Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, he has brought in new thinking and dynamism to the area of biotechnology.

It is 5 pm and the DBT secretary's office is agog with activity. Dr MK Bhan along with his team of directors and advisors are keenly discussing a frontier area in biotechnology. "I spend a lot of time brainstorming with my own people. Like we were sitting together just now. There was no fixed agenda for the meeting and we were discussing research ideas, projects, funding proposals - the whole game plan of proteomics. I can conceive of operational issues better within a defined framework. I need to know where are we heading", said Dr Bhan after the meeting. This dedicated, focused and enthusiastic approach is the hallmark of the country's biotech chief.

Dr Maharaj Kishan Bhan, secretary of India's nodal biotechnology agency, is an eminent pediatrician and clinical scientist par excellence. His research in the area of diarrhoeal diseases and child nutrition is globally recognized. He has developed a Rota viral vaccine, which has not only created a new paradigm on health and international interaction but also put India on path of novel vaccine development.

Bhan spent his childhood years in Kashmir and had a very gentle and philosophical sort of upbringing typical of that region during the earlier days. He was interested in both science and medicine since a young age. He decided to take up medicine as a vocation, did his MBBS and MD and started his career as a pediatrician. But unlike other practicing doctors, he took deep interest in laboratory research and opened his own basic science laboratory in the clinical department. This was something very innovative and normally does not happen easily. "I was fortunate to be in AIIMS because compared to many other places it is tolerant of eccentricities. I grew from being a doctor into being a researcher, gradually into somebody who is interested into technologies for mass public health. I was bringing knowledge and technology into creating programs for children and that is what my life is all about", said the smiling
Dr Bhan.

He took over as Secretary of the Department of Biotechnology in March 2004 and since then has been driving the nascent biotechnology sector in the country. His rich experience as a policy maker at the WHO and other international agencies and constant interaction with the Indian government while helping with the child health programs, made him the ideal person to influence how biotechnology can be placed into real life programs. "I had lab science, clinical research and population based research, all the three in one room and I think biotechnology benefits from that broad perspective in some way", commented the biotech chief.

In a little more than a year and a half, he has brought in new thinking and dynamism to the biotech arena. He has launched a number of new key initiatives like the framing of a novel biotechnology policy, launch of a fund to support small biotech businesses, a novel scheme for creation of Centers of Excellence, a stem cell strategy among many others. Asked about the challenges of this job, he said restlessly, "A DBT secretary has to be accessible because the Department can do little without partnerships with a lot of people - people dealing with education, science, technology, industry, regulation, international pharmacy industry. The challenge of this job is how to maintain access without losing the spaces of time when you can think strategically with your own people in the organization. It is easy to get drowned into the routine...".

Fact File Dr MK Bhan

Position: Secretary, Department of Biotechnology

Date of Birth: November 9, 1947

Academics: MBBS, MD in Pediatrics at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Research, Chandigarh

Major Research Areas: Gastroenterology, diarrhoeal diseases, child nutrition, has developed a vaccine against Rotavirus

Awards & Accolades: Has won numerous national and international awards, notable among them are Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award, 1990, for medical sciences; National Ranbaxy Award, 1990, for Medical Sciences; ST Achar Gold Medal of the Indian Academy of Pediatrics, 1984, for the best original research; SS Mishra Award of the National Academy of Medical Sciences, 1986, for the best unpublished research; Biotech Product and Process Development and Commercialization Award, 2003; Recipient of Pollins Foundation Research Award in 2003; Past Chairman WHO steering committee for child health research.

Other Hats: Member, Board of Directors, International Vaccine Institute, Korea; Chairman, National Task Force on micronutrient policy; Member, Technical Advisory Group, World Health Organization; Member, NIH Task Force on Rotavirus Vaccines; Chairman, Maternal and Child Health Research, Indian Council of Medical Research; Chairman, Scientific Advisory Committee, National Institute of Nutrition, India; Advisor to the Drug Regulatory Authority of India

Papers and Publications: Total international and national publications is 190; Written Chapters in 7 books; Framed guidelines for 4 national programs.

A unique medical researcher and doctor, his philosophy and approach towards his work is also unique. "While your agenda for national development should be humanitarian, the ways in which you create tools and deliver intervention - technological and others must use same kind of methods that are used to create wealth. I think that there is only one process of excellence. What you measure the output by may differ, whether you want to promote equity or create or deliver a vaccine. There is no value system involved in judging the means", said Dr Bhan passionately.

A hard-core Gandhian at heart, he has a very strong sense of public duty that automatically translates into a deep concern for equity and to do something to help the poorer sections of the society, vulnerable groups like women and children. "Over time I have learnt from a variety of people how to balance my idealism with earthly practicality. One of my old teachers had once said that your idealism should be on your occipit and your practicality and wisdom should be in your forehead. And that is what I am", he said summing up his attitude simply.

Bhan discovers mentors and role models in day-to-day life by valuing the qualities in ordinary people. "There are wonderful people in India, you need to recognize and enjoy their company and then from each one of them you learn something". I am a pediatrician and have had a lot of interaction with mothers of small children, who were a constant source of inspiration to me. I used to go out a lot in the community and one out of every 10 mothers would stun you by her extraordinariness in difficult circumstances. I have seen successful deviants in large numbers and I try to understand as to what drives them", he explained. Young mothers, women workers, health workers across India sustain his optimism, persistence and the ability to not give up easily.

A multifaceted person, he has wide ranging interests - traveling, books and sports. "I am bit of a traveler by nature and do not mind entering domains that I am unsure/less sure about. In the process I keep on evolving and learning. I love sports, like people, love to go to remote parts of India. It gives me a distinct sense of joy. I also read a lot and generally pick up two lines from a book, which remain with me. I think that is a good way of extracting in a very simple form an essential idea around complexity that stays with me", shared the DBT chief.

His family has always been a pillar of support to him. Girija Bhan, his wife, who has done her MBA, is an entrepreneur in the international arena. "I have learnt a lot about how not to analyze every issue to death, every issue into inaction and how to take risks. She is a tremendous risk taker, a great support and a wonderful friend", said the smiling Dr Bhan. Their children, a son and a daughter, too have taken after their illustrious parents. His son Gautam Bhan is into societal development and issues related to global social economy group. He has just finished his masters in social science from Chicago and currently is doing a novel project about a low-income community in Delhi while his daughter Shereen Bhan is into entrepreneurial science and management and is doing her MBA from the US. "Both my children are deeply wedded to India and want to make their life here. For us as a family anything outside India is never an option. We are a socially committed bunch and are trying to use the best in modern systems to achieve social goals", said Dr Bhan.

Rolly Dureha

"Basic and translational science can coexist happily"

What have been your significant achievements at DBT?

I am a person who believes greatly in continuity. So my first task was to consolidate and make sure that whatever has been initiated earlier in DBT maintains its momentum, whether it is the department's effort to create human resources, or effort in the area of vaccines, increasing crop varieties, bioresource, animal health, and various other fields. I have tried to ensure that all products that were in the pipeline were allowed to go as per the defined road maps and we systemize the process of product development.

In the area of vaccines, DBT needed more teeth in terms of research because when we have to develop products, we have to do late stage development. I wanted to give the organization the benefit of my background and we have made a lot of progress and a number of people in DBT have learnt how to do late stage development, work with CROs, understand the IPR regulation data and work on milestones like the industry does. We have 20 major clinical trials in the pipeline by December this year.

In the area of human resources, I have tried to add value, have identified a couple of areas like initiating MD PhD programs. We will fund the first such program in partnership between NCBS and CMC Vellore. We are about to start a Masters course in clinical research for physicians and prepare them for the industry. We have tried to improve the quality of our existing PhD, Masters and our equally important technicians program. All these initiatives have been summarized in our biotech strategy document.

If you ask me to single out a one crucial move than conceptually I have tried to spread a sense that basic science and translational science can coexist happily. A basic science institution can desire to produce technology and need to establish relatively independently functioning technology units. Similarly, medical and agricultural schools need dedicated science centers. In other words I have tried to complement what has been missing.

What are the new key initiatives that you have started at DBT?

We have recently introduced the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program. This scheme has taken off very well and we have received 70 proposals in the first month itself. It is the first time that grants for innovative early ideas will be given as the scheme provides loans at just 2 percent interest and provides problem solving help. This will be a big boost for the small companies.

A novel scheme for creation of Centers of Excellence, which is quite different from what has existed in the past, was mooted. These Centers are around gifted individuals and we reimburse 10 years of salary for creation of new faculty position who could be mentored by this leader. We have started giving building contracts in a project mode and use this mechanism of creating Centers to create focus in research, introduce a larger element of teamwork and achieve a new measure of independence by locating the centers outside the Department. We will be increasing the scientific oversight by putting in a Scientific Advisory Committee apparatus to oversee these Centers. A very good example of this would be the creation of a Stem Cell Centre at CMC Vellore with a funding of Rs 72 crore. We hope to create a pool of central jobs so that many of these centers can be opened in the university system and I think that we will expand this scheme a lot.

We have been able to put a Stem Cell Strategy in place in which both the academia and industry have a role. We have established a three-tier system for evaluation of clinical proposals to ensure patient safety. We have funded GMP facility creation at several institutions and are working with Reliance and two other companies to partner them by supporting clinical research on their products. We have created a dedicated training centre at NCBS and CMC Vellore by way of which an evolving strategy and a reliable process has been put in place and it should serve us well in the future.

We have created a biotech strategy that will go to the Cabinet next month. This will give us the framework to work through the next five years and in its latest version it has a large number of new ideas. This strategy has been extensively discussed within the country amongst all stakeholders.

I am also very happy by what we have accomplished through the Mashelkar committee with regulation for biopharma which I hope will be put in place within a month or so by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. So we have a road map for the next five years and are trying to tackle issues one by one.

What in your opinion is a major challenge that India is facing in the science and technology arena?

I have a growing sense that we are not planning our human resources for the science and technology realm. On one hand we go out to the world and tell that we have high quality and low cost human resource but on the other hand we are not prepared to use the same resource and lose it. Neither do we make it easy for scientists to stay back to India nor do we make it easy for them to come back to India. That is one major area to work on. We need mechanisms by which institutions/departments can reengineer themselves to achieve greater productivity and these mechanisms are not readily available.

We need to do something very major to make our schools and under graduate sciences more experimental, create the ability for young people to think big questions, big ideas. There is something in our system that stiffles this ability to think big. We need to make knowledge flow very easily across the sectors.

There is need for a huge built-up in the industry R&D and we have to find ways to build the scientific talent that is doing R&D in the Indian companies. We have this huge opportunity but we should never underestimate the challenges in the path and should avoid this overplay of cost advantage. We need to build the global best practices in everything. Any compromise on the global best practices will hurt us in the long run as there are no short cuts.

What they said...

Dr Manju Sharma, Former Secretary, DBT

Dr MK Bhan is a very good scientist and a very capable person. I had tried to bring biotechnology to a certain level and I am sure that he will take that forward. There are many objectives to achieve in biotechnology and I am very confident that under his leadership it would be possible.

 

Dr PN Tandon, MS, FRCS, DSc, President, National Brain Research Institute

Dr MK Bhan is one of our most outstanding clinical scientists. He is also well known as a pediatrician who has specialized in gastroentrology and his research in the area of diarrhoeal diseases and child nutrition is globally recognized. He has developed a vaccine against Rotavirus that is currently under clinical trials. Rotavirus diarrhoea kills about hundred thousand children in a year. His work on the role of Zinc deficiency in increasing the morbidity and mortality of childhood infections like respiratory disorders is well known. He has also made substantial contribution to the improvement of oral rehydration therapy for diarrhoeal diseases and in the area of nutrition for infants.

 

Dr G Padmanaban, Distinguished Biotechnologist and Honorary professor, IISc, Bangalore

Dr MK Bhan is a clinician with outstanding research contributions in the area of child health. In particular his contributions in the areas of zinc nutrition and Rota viral vaccine development are noteworthy. As secretary to DBT, he has brought in a new thinking to build on the infrastructure already created. In particular, his passion for translation research, to convert ideas into products, build clinical research and clinical trial capabilities, meeting international standards, are indeed the need of the hour. He is equally conscious of the strategies needed to foster basic research in life sciences and promote biotech applications to agriculture and environment. His contribution towards evolving a transparent biotech policy to cater to all the stakeholders is important. His initiatives to identify new Centers of Excellence in the country, foster stem cell research, offer support to research in biotech industry and augment faculty strength in universities through innovative schemes are indeed laudable. In a short time he has brought in a new dynamism to the area of biotechnology.

 

Dr NK Ganguly, Director General, ICMR

Dr MK Bhan started his career as an eminent pediatrician and took deep interest in the area of laboratory research and opened his own basic science laboratory in the clinical department, which is very innovative and normally does not happen easily. He established his academic credentials on diarrhoeal diseases and nutrition. He soon established an international presence and became a pathfinder in several key areas such as persistent diarrhoea in India, the use of Zinc for child survival and development of Rota Virus Vaccine for Rota Viral diarrhoea in childhood and strategies on oral dehydration fluid. His contribution on child survival in India is praiseworthy. In the development of Rota Virus Vaccine also he has created a new paradigm on health and international interaction and put India on path of novel vaccine development. He later rose to the Professorship of paediatrics in AIIMS, New Delhi and took over as Secretary to the Goverment of India in the Department of Biotechnology (DBT). He is a very clear thinker and has shown tremendous innovation on giving new shape to the DBT. Nobody deserves more than him to be "BioSpectrum Person of the Year" in Biotechnology for 2005.

 

Dr RA Mashelkar, Director General, CSIR

It is somewhat strange that Raj Bhan and I hardly met each other until shortly before he took over as Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, New Delhi. I have quickly realized the loss is entirely mine. There is so much I have learnt from this exceptionally gifted and charming friend and an outstanding leader!

First and the foremost, Raj Bhan is an outstanding researcher. His contribution on new vaccines development, micronutrient supplementation and oral rehydration therapy have been pathbreaking. The impact of his work on promoting health care for children in rural India is phenomenal.

When Raj Bhan took over the reins of DBT, I had said that this is the best thing that could have happened to the Indian science administration! He is both bold and visionary – whether it comes to decision making or its implementation. He is a 'no-nonsense' administrator, always thinking of a national goal and not protecting his own turf. We require more of Bhans in Delhi!

In a short time, Raj Bhan has left an impact in everything he has done whether it is framing a novel biotechnology policy or launching a remarkably bold fund to support small biotechnology businesses. Indian biotechnology is so lucky to have a leader like Raj Bhan just as it is taking off. I have no doubt that he will help Indian biotechnology catapult to great heights.

 

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