-Dr Virander S Chauhan
director, ICGEB, New Delhi
Headquartered in Trieste, Italy, the International Center
for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) has two more
components, one each at Cape Town (South Africa) and New Delhi (India).
A part of the United Nations system, the center forms an interactive
network with affiliated centers in 60 member-states.
The New Delhi-component of ICGEB is dedicated to advanced research and
training in molecular biology and biotechnology, and holds out the
prospect of advancing knowledge and applying the latest techniques in
the fields of biomedicine, crop improvement, environmental
protection/remediation, biopharmaceuticals and biopesticide production.
In an interview with BioSpectrum, Dr Virander S Chauhan, director,
ICGEB, New Delhi, shares his views on different topics related to the
center, biotech industry, tuberculosis (TB) research and many other
An expert in malarial research, Dr Chauhan, joined ICGEB in 1988, and
has been responsible for many advancements in drug developments.
Currently, he is also a member of Genetic Engineering Appraisal
Committee (GEAC), the biotech regulator. Excerpts from the interview:
is the purpose behind establishing ICGEB in India?
Prior to establishment of the Asian Chapter of ICGEB, several proposals
were sent to headquarters at Trieste. Among those, the Indian proposal
for establishing a center in New Delhi was found to be the most
competitive one. Therefore, it was decided to establish a center in New
Delhi. With support from Indian and Italian governments, the ICGEB was
initially housed at National Institute of Immunology (NII), but was
later shifted to the present campus of 10,000 sq.ft.area. I would also
like to mention that the former Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi,
played a big role in establishment of the institute, and was
instrumental in its foundation in India.
The purpose behind the establishment of ICGEB was to provide a
scientific and educational environment of the highest standard, and
conduct innovative research in life sciences, for the benefit of
developing countries. The center strengthens the research capability of
its members through training and funding programs and advisory
services; and represents a comprehensive approach to promoting
major research activities are given top priority at ICGEB?
We have eight major focus areas including the main research areas of
mammalian and plant biology. Biomedical projects are pursued in
virology (hepatitis B and E viruses, human immunodeficiency virus and
severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus); immunology (biology of
the immune response and tuberculosis), development of diagnostics and
vaccine candidates for dengue viral infection and structural biology
(development of synthetic antibiotics, crystal structure determination
of proteins and polypeptides) and in the field of malaria; both in
basic research, and vaccine and drug development, as well as
development of technologies for biopharmaceuticals, and for diagnosis
of infectious diseases. In the plant biology area, research projects
address the study of insect resistance and biopesticidals, abiotic and
biotic plant stresses and crop improvement through biotransformation.
ICGEB is also making a unique headway in anti-dengue research. Dengue
vaccine program is in progress and since it has got a long hibernation
period, it is expected to take more time. In case of dengue, it might
take a year-and-a-half to substantiate.
is the progress on the TB drug development front and malarial research?
The progress on the Gates Foundation-funded research on TB and malaria,
has been very positive so far; but the rest of the funding would be
granted only after the evaluation by the Gates Foundation. We are
highly hopeful of that, otherwise, we would have to look for some
industrial partner for the support to continue the research.
The phase-I trials for our malaria vaccine will begin soon; because it
took a long time to get approvals from the Drugs Controller General of
India (DCGI), as their approach is very cautious. Since we have a very
good facility for TB and malaria research, we are looking forward to
more industry collaborations. We have, in the past, partnered with many
companies for technology transfer in malarial research. I think we have
the required skills to translate the ideas into products. We are in
negotiation with a few companies for the TB drug, and would be
announcing the same within three months time.
Moreover, a recent study undertaken by the Immunology Group at ICGEB,
in collaboration with the All India Institute of Medical Science
(AIIMS), focuses on new pathways for TB therapy.
The findings, published in the journal, Cell, explains the way the TB
bacterium survives inside the human body. The results could be used to
create a TB therapy that is not antibiotics-based, and could be a
valuable tool in the fight against antibiotic-resistant TB.
do you evaluate your experiences in working with the industry ?
When we began in 1988, we came up with many new technologies. We
developed many diagnostic kits in the past, and collaborated with
industry for technology transfer. But, somehow I feel that we didn't
get a better deal out of that. However, I don't blame any of our
industrial partners, as it was our own lack of awareness about
intellectual property rights (IPR) that has to be blamed for it.
Despite having the access to technology, the lack of trained manpower
and sufficient knowledge about handling technology made us apprehensive
we started late, we have been quick to adopt the same. But, now I am
happy to see the initial hiccups are tackled and we have come a long
How do you plan to bridge the gap between basic and translational
We try to find the balance between the basic and translation research.
However, it is not feasible for us to get into translational model, as
we are involved in doing the basic research.
Therefore, we are in need of a translational facilitator that can help
to translate the basic research into the product outcome.
are your views on the patent rights in the current context ?
The lack of awareness about the IPR has been a very bad experience for
public institutes. This has led to many situations where despite having
the authority over the product, we could not ask more from our
industrial partner because of the papers signed under contract.
Ideally, if a scientist is producing some new product, he cannot be the
owner, because of the fact that he utilizes the public funding for the
Therefore, I feel that the product created by the utilization of public
funds is the property of institute, and should not be owned by an
kind of funding is received by the ICGEB ?
We have received `14.07 crore ($3 million) from the Bill & Melinda
Gates Foundation for the initial research focused on malaria and TB
The Indian government has provided core funding. The Department of
Biotechnology (DBT) gave us many projects, and we have been allowed to
write proposals to put our focus on Indian issues pertaining to
agriculture (drought resistant rice), and cotton research.
The DBT has helped us, and the Wellcome Trust has supported us in many
ways. Italian and Indian governments committed funds; and the United
Nations (UN) agreed to provide the logistics support. The role of the
UN is also administrative in nature, and we don't get any financial
support from them.
are the initiatives taken by ICGEB to strengthen ties with its members?
ICGEB plays a crucial role in encouraging talent across member
countries to promote research in core areas. We select students from
the member-countries and their expenses are borne by ICGEB. In total,
there are 60 members who contribute funding to ICGEB, but those
contributions are almost negligible.
is the role played by ICGEB on biosafety front?
ICGEB plays an important role in biosafety-related issues, and in the
environmentally sustainable use of biotechnology.
In biosafety-related issues, we need to have our own system and cannot
follow Europe blindly. We do have perception issues in India, and
people sometimes get too apprehensive, which is not a good thing. I
agree that we have to be very cautious as it is directly related to our
health; but the concerns according to me should be genuine.
you have been a member of GEAC, what is your opinion on the Bt brinjal
As the moratorium continues, I would not like to comment on this.
However, I would like to add that we need to deliberate to arrive at a
decision whether to use Bt or not, because otherwise the other crops in
the trials would meet the same fate.
At the 100th meeting of GEAC, it was decided that a panel of prominent
and expert scientists be formed, to decide on the further biosafety
tests to be conducted on the Bt brinjal.
Rahul Koul in New Delhi