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'Open source drug discovery will lower costs'
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February 15, 2008
The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) links 37 constituent laboratories with diverse research portfolios as varied as drug discovery to oceanography.

The agency, which had a budgetary assistance worth Rs 1,861 crore (Rs 18.61 billion) for 2007-08, links academia, research organisations and the industry.

It is a part of the Global Research Alliance (GRA) - a nine-member alliance of knowledge-intensive technology organisations from around the world - that explores ways of exploiting their cumulative knowledge and expertise for the larger good in the context of globalisation.

The latest initiative of CSIR has been the launch of an Open Source Drug Discovery (OSDD) Programme aimed at providing affordable health to all, especially to the underprivileged. Samir K Brahmachari who took over as director general of CSIR three months ago, spoke to Joe Mathew on the current status of CSIR, the immediate tasks before him and, more importantly, on his pet OSDD Programme. Excerpts:

What are the immediate tasks before you?

I have inherited a CSIR that has been led by illustrious scientists for the last 65 years. The organisation has given the country an extraordinary asset which empowers today's new India. 

As DG, CSIR, my role is similar to that of Zubin Mehta and I am here to create a symphony out of a network of 37 fairly autonomous laboratories with diverse interests. What I had been experimenting on a lab scale during my previous job as head of a constituent institution of CSIR (Institute of Genomics and Integrated Biology) will have to be scaled up 100 times if I have to drive CSIR in the same fashion.

With the economy getting globalised, the aspirations of our people have suddenly increased. The government, the planners and the national leaders are visualising an India that will lead. So it needs a CSIR which is appropriate to fulfil its dreams.

What are the focus areas for CSIR?

Of the 4,500 CSIR scientists, one-third focus on high science. In 2007, we published 3,700 scientific papers and created 400 PHDs. These institutions are doing world-class research. Another one- third is dedicated to technology development and patents. CSIR holds 60 per cent of international patents given to India covering all technologies.

Right from tractors to water pumps to environment-friendly technology to the leather industry, we develop everything. CSIR helps the Indian pharma industry develop low-cost drugs has been remarkable.

The third focus area is the social and strategic sector, which includes water purification methods to various aspects of rocket technology. CSIR labs, for instance, in collaboration with the earth science ministry, played a critical role in expanding India's exclusive economic zone in the sea by 50 per cent through a successful deep ocean bed survey. Whether it is the development of low-cost vaccines or environment-friendly technologies, we have always been a solution provider for the country. CSIR will continue to do that.

Almost one-third of CSIR institutions are headless. There are also reports of the fast migration of scientists from public research institutions to private research organizations.

There are 10 institutions where the appointment of directors has to take place. CSIR and the ministry have finalised the new procedures for appointment of directors in all these labs. It will happen without further delay. However, I am not worried about CSIR's performance as all acting directors in these institutions are doing well. I have no concerns as this proves that even the second-level leadership is very capable.

On attracting and retaining talent, the ministry is working out a fresh package for scientists. One should understand that Indian scientists have never been in so much demand in India before. They are of very high value today. I consider that I have only one job and that is to have excellent scientists who are happy and highly motivated in the organisation. We are working out the possibility of revised packages to make CSIR jobs attractive.

Is there a need for more resources? What are the immediate needs of CSIR?

Money will not bring in good science. What we need is a team of scientists that will bring in value to the organisation through knowledge generation for the public good.

I am completing 100 working days on April 2. Currently I am undertaking preliminary interactions with the directors of all constituent institutions to understand the ground situation.

You are known as the proponent of the Open Source Drug Discovery Programme. What is its current status?

Most of the drug discoveries are made in a closed door environment, where the highest degree of secrecy is maintained resulting in the lack of open participation of the entire academic world. The Open Source Drug Discovery Programme aims to address the issue by attempting to capture the youngest and brightest minds around the globe to be a part of discovery of therapeutics for infectious diseases.

Also, to apply the knowledge of pharmacogenomics to keep the cost of patent drugs, especially for chronic diseases requiring long-term treatment, low. It aims to establish a novel web-enabled open source platform - both computational and experimental - to make drug discovery cost effective and affordable by utilising the creative potential of college and university students along with senior scientists, a collective approach to drug development.

The students and scientists, in turn, would also be rewarded with incentives for developing novel algorithms, finding drug targets, leading identification and other novel contributions.

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