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Vol. 9 No. 4 - October 2003

Biotechnology : Past, Present and Future

By: Lalji Singh

In our present day world, personalized medicine, individual genomes on CD, drugs without side-effects, organ replacement with biologically synthesized cells look to be some of the important possibilities in the near future, given the revolutionary advances being made in the field of Biotechnology. The knowledge of biotechnology goes as far back as the beginning of human civilization and has been progressively practiced ever since. Most pronounced activities involving the use of biotechnology until the close of the Nineteenth Century were fermentation, curd making, and brewing. In the Twentieth Century, the mankind witnessed the most spectacular advances over the past millennium - elucidation of the mechanism of heredity. This select knowledge allowed numerous manipulations for intelligent breeding of plants and animals for survival in the competitive environment, for betterment of the mankind.

Some of the important milestones which have formed the bases for further advances in biotechnology in the Twentieth Century include Mendelís theory of evolution in 1865, discovery of chromosomes (1882), verification of Mendelís laws (1990), genetic mutations (1927), transformation of one strain to another (1928), DNA-heredity material (1944), X-ray diffraction data DNA (1952), discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick (1953), DNA-a double helix, genetic engineering (1973), DNA Fingerprinting for identifying individuals (1984), first physical map of human genome (1987), first cloning of a sheep named Dolly (1997), the first genetically-engineered primate (2000), and completion of the first sequence of the entire human genome (2000).

Human genome sequence information would lead to discovery of new targets, which could be used for discovering and designing of drugs. U.S. Food & Drug Administration has approved 348 biomedicines so far and 370 are in development phase.

Among the new challenges, we have the important task of finding out the functions of most of the genes. There were 40,000 protein-coding genes and the functions of only 1,500 genes were known so far. More than 98 per cent of DNA in human genome was non-coding and the scientists regarded a major part of it as junk. The answer to puzzling question that why are we so different from one another lies probably in the non-coding DNA. Therefore, it is very important to understand functioning of the remaining genes. It is much known today that the interaction of gene with the environment makes people behave differently. It is environment that is responsible for criminal tendency of a person.

We also know today that identical twins behave differently in different environments. It is our important experience that it is technology that drives science and not the other way round. Technological breakthroughs hold answers for most of our problems. The exploits of micro-array technology, proteomics, functional and comparative genomics based on bioinformatics and structural biology such as X-ray Crystallography and the Transgenic Gene Knock-out technology.

These facilities are available at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology Hyderabad (CCMB), which are on par with the international standards.

To make use of the knowledge in these areas for drug discovery, there was a need to set up transgenic animal models for human diseases. The imported animal models are very expensive. In India, there are some institutes of science such as CCMB that have these models and are being used by pharma companies for testing purposes. To ensure that such facilities are adequately available in the country it is important to set up Resource Centres which may be sponsored by the government or the private sector and share them by networking. Individual companies could send their proposals that could be screened by funding agencies. The selected proposals could be provided grants and the Resource Centres asked to provide all facilities for which payment might be made by the government from the grants.

One of the major developments awaited in the near future is in the area of personalized medicine based on individual genotype. At present, patients suffering from the same disease are put on same medication. The current therapeutic approach elicits response from some while others remain unresponsive, which is attributed to inherent difference in their genetic make-up.

In some cases, the medicine could be fatal. Therefore, the physician finds it important to know the genotype before prescribing the medicine.

For a country like India with a large section of the population facing economic challenge, such hi-tech medicine would carry much significance if it could be made affordable to the masses rather than to the affluent sections alone.

Advances in basic research in plant and animal sciences would yield information about the genes that control life processes. Advances in medicine would help understand the genetic control of health and disease. Further progress in bioinformatics would result in the creation of large databases, which would require complex software programming for structural analysis and recognition of patterns.

There are immense possibilities ahead in medicine and health, agriculture, food technology, industrial technology that would tackle complex problems of human and animal diseases and disorders, world food security, and, thus, redefine the human comfort.

Dr. Lalji Singh is the Director of Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology, Hyderabad.

(The article, reproduced from AIBA Newsletter, is based on a talk delivered by the author at a meeting of the All India Biotech Association Ė Southern Chapter at Hyderabad)


This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.


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