What We Knew About The Genome

Aravindan Neelakandan

Aug 09, 2016, 05:13 PM | Updated 05:13 PM IST

  • Indic knowledge systems can be groomed and nurtured to make India a scientific resource house for the planet. The third and concluding part of our series on Hindutva and science.
  • On 13 August 2014, two days before India’s celebration of her 68th Independence Day, the European Patent Office (EPO) rejected patent application no EP2419508. The application, “Method for the induction of a reward response by modulation of dopaminergic systems in the central nervous system”, had been filed by the US-based Somalab. It proposed the use of lotus and cowhage in the treatment of obesity and hunger control. However, there was a third party intervention. The third party claimed that this formulation was already part of the traditional medical knowledge of India. Three ancient Indian medical texts were shown as evidence: Vangasena and Kaiyadevanighantau by Kaiyadeva, and Aryabhisaka by Smkaradajisatrapade.

    The third party intervention was made by the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL), an inter-disciplinary task force founded in 2001 that has been vigorously documenting traditional bio-cultural knowledge of Indic communities. It has been at the forefront of fighting patents of these community knowledge bases by pharmaceutical companies, mainly based in the West.

    One important member of the core team for this endeavour, starting from the recognition of the need for the creation of a traditional knowledge database to the presentation of the vision and concept was Dr Raghunath Anant Mashelkar, the then Director General of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), with an immense knowledge in the field of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR).

    Incidentally, the anti-Hindutva forces, ranging from the Neo-Gandhian historian Ramchandra Guha to rabid Marxists, attacked Mashelkar for his supposed Sangh links.

    The Success of TKDL

    TKDL is the result of sustained and innovative teamwork, including regional TK experts, scientists and software professionals. Dr V.K. Gupta was particularly instrumental in the conceptualisation of TKDL. But it was the synergy between Mashelkar and then HRD Minister Dr Murli Manohar Joshi that was instrumental in the spirited speeding up of things.

    India’s renowned experimental and reverse pharmacologist Dr Ashok Vaidya pointed out in a 2011 interview how Dr Mashelkar’s in-depth knowledge of IPR issues immensely helped in infusing a new culture to the scientific establishment. Since then, TKDL has stopped many patents on herbal formulation of Indic origin in both US and European patent offices (even though, unfortunately, Indian immigrant techies have been instrumental in providing the West considerable leads). In the process, TKDL has taken on multinational giants like Johnson & Johnson, Nestle and Unilever.


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    Ayurgenomics can make India a leader in the field of individualised medicines based on knowledge of genomes.

    In 2014, Prithwiraj Choudhury, assistant professor of business administration in the Technology and Operations Management unit at Harvard Business School (HBS), along with Tarun Khanna, the Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor at HBS, published a report on TKDL’s impact on patent applications.

    They studied each and every patent filed at the US Patent and Trademark Office and the European Patent Office between 1977 and 2010. They concluded that the overall trend of herbal patent filing did not decline in the face of litigation in the mid-1990s but did flatten out once the TKDL project started gaining momentum in 2003. They also report that, starting 2006, there was a shift from herbal patents towards patents that are a combination of herbal and synthetic formulations.

    As Choudhury points out, TKDL has stimulated new research globally.

    TKDL effectively combines swadeshi science and traditional wisdom as well as international IPR issues like never before. Dr Joshi vigorously promoted this agenda which concretised into a global fight against bio-piracy as well as verifying and validating traditional knowledge through modern science and conserving it for posterity through digital technology.

    The Sangh Parivar and Science

    The words “Sangh Parivar”, in conjunction with “science”, often bring to mind an obsession of allied organisations with selling cow products and the not so Vedic “Vedic mathematics”. However, the parivar’s approach to science and technology goes far beyond the media stereotypes of peddling cow urine-based products and even their own cadre fixations.

    Vigyan Bharathi (VB) is the parivar organisation associated with popularising science in society and reviving what it considers the ancient traditional knowledge systems of India. Though VB came into existence at a conceptual level as early as 1982, it was only in 1990 that it started functioning with new blood.

    On 29 December 1990, a consultative meet was organised at Bangalore. It was attended by RSS leaders with a science background, and also Dharampal, the extraordinary Gandhian historian who had documented the status of traditional science and technology in India at the commencement of the colonial era. Dr Joshi was also present. One of the offshoots of the conference was the Swadeshi Science Movement. Its Kerala chapter started functioning with vigour during the NDA rule, and launched a magazine, Science India.

    A random walk through the issues of Science India provides a clue as to what kind of science popularisation culture the Sangh Parivar was attempting: whether it was genuine popularisation of science for a democratic society or a peddling of religion-oriented pseudo-science, promoting fundamentalism.

    Here are two examples:

    In the August 2004 issue, there is a moving tribute to American evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, calling him “Darwin’s worthy successor”. An excerpt: “Gould has studied the relationship between physical development of an organism and its evolution. Spandrels of spaces in corners above arches in the buildings are not an architectural necessity but exist by virtue of simply unpurported design. Likewise, he warned that all physical features which exist in an organism should not be taken to be adaptational in origin.” The tribute also points out how Gould exposed the fallacious theory of intelligence quotients as “based more on political witchcraft than on scientific knowledge”. This, from a magazine from the house of those labeled as “Brahminical supremacists”!

    In 2005, Science India ran a two-part paper by Arpita Subash titled “Gender and Science”. Among other things, the paper states:

    “The conservative society in India forces loneliness and professional exclusion of women scientists from informal groups, committees and science societies which impinges on their contribution and productivity.…Bal (2002) opines that discrimination against women practitioners of science may not be due to conscious efforts from male colleagues. However, cultural upbringing and values do contribute to the discrimination observed….Various studies found that class, caste and religion play important role in women’s representation in science.”

    And this magazine is published by a group accused of having regressive reactionary values. The Swadeshi Science Movement received the Jawaharlal Nehru Prize for the year 2005-2006 instituted by the Indian Science Congress Association for the popularisation of science from then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh.

    In 2007, it received the national award for Outstanding Efforts in Science and Technology Communication from the Ministry of Science and Technology.

    Left-Media Campaign: Ayurgenomics

    Every time India takes forward her traditional knowledge into the realm of science, there has been a concerted effort from the Indian media to ridicule and negatively portray it. Ayurgenomics provides a case study in this regard.

    Michael Heinrich and Anna K. Jäger in their textbook on ethnopharmacology define it thus: “In Ayurveda the therapeutic regimen is designed according to the prakruti of individual patients and individual characteristics governed by what is today termed Ayurgenomics.…Ayurgenomics focuses on understanding the possible relationship between prakruti and genome.”

    This is a bold new framework to use the human genome for individualised medicine. With individualised medicines being positioned as the future of genome-based medicine, this can really make India a unique leader in the field. Even if the exploratory approaches fail, our knowledge of the human genome and our knowledge of Indic traditional medical systems will be benefited.

    And the results are encouraging.

    In March 2014, Nature (India) reported one such study online. It was done by a team that included Dr B.K. Thelma, the head of Delhi University’s genetics department:

    “They designed a study involving 350 patients diagnosed as amvata (the Ayurvedic equivalent of rheumatoid arthritis) alongside 376 controls.…The scientists also found that genes linked to inflammatory pathways influenced arthritis in the vata group but in another sub-group (pitta), genes involved with oxidative stress showed up. This meant different gene interactions and mechanisms led to the arthritis condition, and in turn needed different treatment approaches.”

    In 2010, a CSIR study, published in PNAS (Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences), reported the “identification of a gene and a genetic marker (EGLN1) linked to high altitude adaptation and hypoxia responsiveness” through genetic analysis of extreme constitution types as defined in Ayurveda.

    In any other society, such a successful, scientifically rigorous, traditionally rooted and medically useful study would have been given prominent space in popular science discourse. If one looks at New Scientist or Scientific American, one finds regular enthusiastic reporting of such studies, even if they later turn out to be not living up to their promise as originally reported. Nevertheless, that is how a popular culture of interest in science is created. And in the case of Ayurgenomics there has been a steady progress reported in peer-reviewed journals.

    For example, in the case of EGLN1, the same team has then reported “molecular differences that contribute to systemic attributes of Prakriti that would be relevant in predictive marker discovery”.

    However, what was unexpected was an unprecedented hatchet job on Ayurgenomics. The left-leaning magazine Caravan published an exhaustive report on Ayurgenomics in April 2014.

    Titled “What On Earth Is ‘Ayurgenomics’ Anyway?” the term was called a word with “newfangled oxymoronic timbre”. The reason for the attack was only that the Modi-led NDA stated in its 2014 election manifesto that it would support Ayurgenomics. The target was Dr Mitali Mukerji, a senior principal scientist at the CSIR Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology.

    Though Dr Mukerji and her team have published their findings in internationally reputed peer-reviewed journals, the magazine wrote disparagingly that “although they may sound pathbreaking, Mukerji’s findings have not provoked any debate among her genomics research peers”. Then it went on to claim that it made “an online search for the word Ayurgenomics” and it threw up “Mukerji’s own articles, papers based on her study and sympathetic articles by Ayurvedic physicians or researchers who have collaborated with her”. After this allegation, it quotes a popular blogger’s opinion as “a blistering attack on” that “rubbishes her study as an ‘abuse of genomics’, challenging her claims, such as the one that Ayurveda had ‘fueled many drug discovery approaches’”. Then the real agenda for the attack on this new view in genomics is revealed—the Hindu revivalist label:

    “In (Ayurgenomics’) defence, (Dr Mukerji) cited ancient medical texts by Charaka,… perhaps unwittingly echoing the declamations of Hindu revivalists.” She is also reported to have “suggested” (note the carefully avoided word “said”) “that in all probability the pioneers of Ayurveda knew about modern concepts such as genes, proteins and microbes”.

    In short, the article makes the scientist look like a fundamentalist to force her to run for cover from the lynch-mob journalism of the socialist variety. The article ends, assuming an air of neutrality, declaring patronisingly that while it is “too early to celebrate Mukerji’s hypothesis”, it is “perhaps a little premature to condemn it as pure bunkum”.

    In other words, a stern warning to the Indian science community: If you study anything Indic, we are waiting to catch you, defame you and damn you.

    That the article cared not much about facts can be seen from the statement that an online search yielded only Dr Mukerji’s own works, of that of her co-workers and her “sympathisers”. Yet the work by Dr Thelma had been reported in 2012 and is available online. This is a peer-reviewed paper and was reported in Nature (India) online in March 2014. The scientific conference in which she presented the findings was in February 2014. And in this paper, Dr Mukerji is not a co-author. Yet the Caravan writer could not find these references. The shallow nature of this article can be inferred from the way it considers the website an authority. The blog is said to challenge the claims of Indian scientists “such as the one that Ayurveda had ‘fueled many drug discovery approaches’.”

    But it so happened that barely two months later, Scientific American published an article that detailed the work of scientists studying the herbal solutions, and it stated that “their approach, called reverse pharmacology, was inspired by the efforts of Indian scientists hunting for new drugs from ancient Ayurvedic medicine”. In other words, Scientific American could see the value of the work done by Indian scientists which the left-dominated Indian media either under-reported, or worse, negatively reported.

    There is no doubt that Sangh Parivar organisations have an over-fixation with cow-based formulations and Vedic mathematics. However, in the final analysis, the Hindutva movement encourages at least a bold new framework based on the pluralist Indic philosophical substratum for explorations in science and for developing indigenous technology. From the cargo cult nature of over-enthusiasts to TKDL and Ayurgenomics, Hindutva does have a vision which can be groomed and nurtured to make India a scientific resource house for the planet in general and post-colonised countries in particular.

    Despite the caricatures, the saffron movement scores better than those who make shrill noises about the scientific temper, and who use it only to paint Indian culture negatively or further their own vested interests.

    See also: Nobel for traditional medicine in China, meanwhile in India. . .

    Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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