Prof. Peter Hodgson, Director, Institute for Technology Research and Innovation, Deakin University, Australia
The Energy and Resources Institute of India (TERI)
recently inked an MoU with Australia's Deakin University to establish
TERI-Deakin Bionanotechnology Research Center in New Delhi. The center
will have 70 researchers, including 50 PhD students enrolled at Deakin
and co-supervised by Deakin and TERI staff. The center will also
function as a hub for the Deakin India Research Initiative (DIRI)
launched earlier this year.
In an interview with BioSpectrum, Prof. Peter Hodgson, Director of
Deakin's Institute for Technology Research and Innovation (ITRI) and
Australian Laureate Fellow shares information about the purpose of
establishing the center, nature of partnership with India, latest
trends in bionanotechnology and also about Indian biotech sector.
Q What is the purpose of
establishing the TERI-Deakin Bionanotechnology Research Center?
The objective of establishing a world-class center of excellence
between TERI and Deakin University is to address the issues involved in
the application of bionanotech concepts. The new center will complement
the research activities of both TERI and Deakin. Initially, the focus
will be on bionanotech application in the agricultural sector to
improve crop yields, reduce the amount of fertilizers and other
applications where targeted delivery of molecules will bring the
benefits. In the future, this will extend to health and other related
Q What is the nature of
your partnership with TERI? What kind of support will be provided by
ITRI to TERI?
At this stage, the partnership is built around research topics of
mutual interest. We currently have some joint PhD programs involving
supervisors from Australia and India. The new bionanotech center will
take the collaboration to the next level. TERI will provide
laboratories and staff facilities, while Deakin will supply staff,
equipment and also sponsor some of the students to travel to Australia.
Q Can you tell us about
the research activities going on at ITRI?
ITRI is a cross-disciplinary research center. It has many of Deakin's
leading researchers and state-of-the-art laboratories for materials
science, nanotechnology, chemical sciences and intelligent systems. We
are interested in the research for the future where all of these
Q How can
bionanotechnology provide solutions to the issues concerning
healthcare, water and food security?
Bionanotechnology is a segment of nanotechnology space where we attempt
to either replicate biological systems or we depend on biotechnology
and chemistry to create functional materials for the future. A major
international focus is on targeted drug delivery. Many of our current
healthcare solutions target the 'average' population and have a safety
margin. Personalized healthcare is the next big thing. In targeted drug
delivery, we are designing complex molecules that can target certain
site (say a cancer cell) and then release the agent with focus on that
specific cell. The cell can then be knocked out by radiation without
damaging the healthy cells. In agriculture, if we can deliver the
fertilizer or growth factors to the most appropriate parts of the plant
then we can potentially reduce the use of pesticides and fertilizers,
as it is a major issue that affects the health of human being.
Q To what extent will
the bionanotechnology transform materials science?
In the materials science space, DNA is considered as a polymer
(plastic). We can create complex molecules that have numerous
applications. The reality is that we still consider cells and other
subcomponents for their chemical attributes rather than as a simple
cell. Most of the world is made up of surfaces – if we can change how
surfaces interact then we can look at self cleaning buildings and more
efficient catalysts. This approach opens up many other connected areas.
Medicinal chemistry may help us understand the ayurvedic solutions to
certain health issues. It is a major area of focus in China and it
really needs to be explored in India and Australia.
Q What are your views on
the growth of biotech sector and R&D in India?
The biotech sector has had a remarkable period of growth in India. Some
of our partners including TERI; Center for Cellular and Molecular
Biology in Hyderabad, India; VIMTA Labs Hyderabad and Bangalore; have
facilities that are truly world-class. There is no doubt that like in
all value-added sectors (except in IT) the biggest gap is qualified
personnel. India is producing many graduates and masters degree
holders, but the real need for these types of industries is often at
the higher end – PhDs. Some comparative studies between Australia and
India suggest a need for over 2,000 PhD holders in biotechnology alone
to meet the industry needs within five years. The new bionanotech
center will contribute to this growing need.
Joint initiatives between academic institutions and industry are still
missing in India. I think we have a number of working models in
Australia that I am keen to try and see how they could be Indianised to
help grow the required human capital. The demand is not only for PhD
holders with research papers, the researchers should also possess an
exploratory mind with advanced problem solving skills to contribute to
industry, to grow new industries and to emerge as leaders of the
future. India has a chance to break the stereotype of PhDs as boffins.
Q What are other
research areas where India and Australia can build partnership?
Bionanotechology is India's big chance to do something different to
China and other parts of the world. Many countries have invested
massively in other forms of nanotechnology. With strong biotech and IT
skills, India has enormous potential. By shifting focus on future
technologies like bionanotechnology, India can leap frog China in
Regarding other areas, there are common issues around climate change,
water utilization, alternative energy production and agriculture. An
area I am personally keen to see development is public health.
Australia has developed one of the best healthcare systems in the world
that spread over a large area. Extensive work is happening at Deakin in
lifestyle-related diseases such as diabetes and obesity. India
has to face the issues related to lifestyle as the young population in
the country is more prone to these disease due to their affinity
towards western food habits. The growing poverty level will also add to
health issues related to food and water supply, and quality issues.
Rahul Koul in New Delhi