Monday, April 14, 2014

Parasites Controlling Host Behavior



An amazing window into the influence wielded by parasites in the animal kingdom:

A tapeworm infection on Artemia (brine shrimp) turns them into red-colored swarms that are easier for the Greater Flamingo to spot and devour. The flamingo, in turn, helps in spreading the tapeworm eggs across a much wider range.

The Gordian worm (horsehair worm) infection makes a type of cricket suicidal. It changes their brain circuitry so that whenever they are close to a pool of water, the crickets just dive in, and die. Once in water, the worm emerges...

Ampulex compressa (emerald wasp) stings its venom into two specific neuron clusters in a cockroach's brain. Now this allows the little wasp to lead the big roach, with its antennae, like a doggie, to a nest where it can lay eggs on it. The larvae that emerge eat up the docile cockroach alive, and the cycle continues...

A single-cell   parasite, Toxiplasma gondii makes mice run towards cats!

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LINKS:

* Transcript of the TED Talk -- https://www.ted.com/talks/ed_yong_suicidal_wasps_zombie_roaches_and_other_tales_of_parasites/transcript

Soldiers Old & New

In early 2002, I was stepping out of my hotel room in Mumbai when I noticed an elderly, carefully dressed, hunched gentleman in the foyer. "Hello, boy!", he said, in response to my greeting, "stepping out for the day's business?".  It was Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw.

The first thing that struck me was how different he looked in civilian clothes. The old black-and-white photos always showed him in a certain understated grandeur. Handlebar mustache, light eyes and those famous, ready repartee's ("If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying , or he is a Gurkha!").

Almost the same thought crossed my mind yesterday when we went to see the Change of Guards at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. A few days ago, the Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry (JAKLI) Regiment had replaced 28 Madras as the Presidential Guards and this was the first time JAKLI was doing the formal, weekly change-over on their own. 

Once the ceremony of over, the mounted guards rode away into a dusty, reddish haze. As everybody was stepping out to take photos, an army officer called out to his guests. "This is Subedar Major Bana Singh", he said, standing next to an avuncular Sikh gentleman with a dyed beard. 


The Bana Singh?? I looked carefully at the man, trying hard to imagine him leading a small team in 1987, scaling an ice cliff  6500m up in the Hmalayan Saltoro Ranges, in the face of stinging winds at minus 45C, to capture a ridge held by Pakistani commandos. Somehow, my imagination failed me.

Just as it was difficult to think of the elderly Sam standing in a hotel foyer, as the General who won the Bangladesh War, it was impossible to think of Bana anything other than a friendly, cheerful shopkeeper who had just driven down from Khan Market.

Now, this was something to think about:  Does this not show that behind almost every unremarkable face we see around us, there lurks a will power, capable of the most incredible acts of heroism?


Major S. Rathore of 8 LAK LI inspects the Guards

The President's Bodyguards trot back to the barracks
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LINKS

* YouTube - Indian Army on Siachen Glacier (1/3) -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SvtgAM_l54g
* Siachen Hero - Bana Singh -- http://www.scribd.com/doc/2213913/Siachen-Hero-Bana-Singh
*  The Fight for Siachen -- http://tribune.com.pk/story/368394/the-fight-for-siachen/


Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Guha on Import Dependence

"Almost all elected members of GRC are SSB prize winners...an entry into this club means that you have arrived"

In the world of Indian sci-tech GRC and SSB are acronyms even a novice would know. The former stands for Guha Research Conference set up in the name of B. C. Guha, and the latter, the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize.

This makes it all the more strange that a Google search on GRC would only get you a long list of Indian scientists who are proud to call themselves "elected members" without any publicly accessible information on how this club functions. There was no Wikipedia page on Guha Research Conference, until today.

According to Parthasarathi Banerjee, affiliation to GRC, "acts as the token, assuring easier access to prizes of several sorts."  The SSB Prize is one of them.

As far as institutions go, GRC presents an interesting case to all those who are curious to know why India's output is so sad when it comes to applied S&T. The organization is named after Prof. Bires Chandra Guha (1904-1962) who is referred to as the 'father of modern Indian biochemistry'.

Guha was, no doubt, a person of many interesting dimensions. He was a freedom fighter, an artist and a scientist who worked closely with many Nobel laureates in UK and USA. After independence, he returned to India and helps establish many a national institution like CFTRI, Mysore.

Way back in 1956, he made a sharp observation - "It is undesirable that practically all fine instruments of measurements should have to be imported. Biochemical researches in these days are greatly dependent on such instruments and biochemists in this country should make a special plea for the manufacture of these instruments".

Half-a-century later our labs continue to be helplessly dependent on foreign manufacturers for nearly all their equipment and reagents.

It would be interesting to know that the eminent members of GRC have been doing to solve this long-standing problem..


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LINKS

* Wiki on GRC  (created 7 April 2014) -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guha_Research_Conference

* Biresh Chandra Guha: Father of Modern Biochemistry in India -- http://www.iisc.ernet.in/currsci/sep252004/823.pdf

http://books.google.co.in/books?id=dLT2PMgI7MsC&pg=PA231&lpg=PA231&dq=guha+GRC+india&source=bl&ots=m4w1gtdCe3&sig=u_wgXWGeeEzfG30l4tW4aOfLFNU&hl=en&sa=X&ei=s1JCU5ulGsWFrAeC3oDIDw&ved=0CEoQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=guha%20GRC%20india&f=false

Monday, April 07, 2014

Mangrove Puzzles


"Pettah" or "Pettai" is a village or suburb located outside a fort in South India or Ceylon.

About thirty kilometers east of Chidambaram, the ancient temple-town in South India, is a village called Parangi-pettai. Located on the mouth of the Kaveri river delta, it was, no doubt a strategic location for the European Franks (Ferenghi / Parangi) who once established trading stations all along the Indian coastline.

The unusual thing about this Pettai is that it sits next to Pichavaram, one of the largest mangrove forests in peninsular India. The place is big - and beautiful!



According to the Puranas, it is in these mangrove forests (Thillai Vanam) that Shiva acquired many of the accessories depicted in popular iconography -- serpents as necklaces and waistbands, a tiger-skin shawl and the little demon, Muyalakan, on whose back he dances the Ananda Tandava.

Thillai specifically refers to a species of mangrove trees -  Exocoeria agallocha. It also goes by a more sinister name: Blind-your-eye mangrove. The plant has a milky latex so toxic that it can turn you blind.

Oddly, the particular mangrove species is native to only Tamil Nadu coastline and in North-West Australia...why is that?  And why is it that mangroves are widely seen along India's eastern coastline and not on the western side, along the Malabar-Konkan estuaries?

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LINKS

* TNAU - Mangroves of India - http://agritech.tnau.ac.in/forestry/forest_mangrove_index.html
* Kerala Forest Department - http://www.forest.kerala.gov.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=73&Itemid=199
* Wiki - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mangrove
* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamil_mythology


Along the Mughal Road





11 March, 2014
"Head-Lights Off; Body Lights On" 

We are in the domain of the Ace of Spades, the 25th Infantry Division of the Indian Army.  It is a three hour drive from Jammu to Rajouri, and this perhaps in the most prominent roadside sign you will see along the highway. Words painted in terse block letters mark the iron gates guarding military camps, all along a route that has long been known as the Mughal Road.

A drive like this would have been a breeze in any other Himalayan river valley, but this is J&K, a magnet to assorted, armed fanatics from across the border. If you happen to arrive at one of these gates at night with the wrong lights on, chances are that you will be shot first and asked questions later.

Having been warned not to travel after sunset,  we had  out in pre-dawn darkness, driving through un-seasonal rains, along the Akhnoor plains and the Chenab river-valley, and over hills overlooking an endless chain of sodium vapor lamps that mark the Indo-Pak border.

As the rains eased and darkness gives way to dawn, army trucks lumbered along the highway, dropping ROPs - Road Opening Parties - soldiers in parkas and assault rifles trudge up and down the roads. Places with evocative names keep coming up -- Sundarbani, Kalighan, Naushera and  Bafliaz.

The Ace of Spades is only the most recent in the long list of army divisions that had passed through these mountains and valleys.  In 1587 Jalaluddin Akbar went down this road to conquer Kashmir. He left behind large gardens and new townships. The Mughal army that accompanied his son, Jehangir, made its mark in a different way – it built a fortified Serai, and named it after the emperor’s royal intestines!

The story goes that that in the early 1600's, Jehangir, was on his way back from the Kashmir valley to Delhi when he suddenly passed away. Years of being an opium addict and an alcoholic had finally caught up with him. In any case the power behind the throne was his 13th wife, Empress Noor Jehan. Given the precarious state of Mughal succession planning, this lady decided that the only way to survive the inevitable power struggle was to act as though her husband were still alive until they reached safer areas. So on the banks of the Rajauri Nullah, she had the body eviscerated, buried the emperor's decaying innards at Chingus Fort, propped his body on a caparisoned elephant, and carried on in royal splendor, until they reached Lahore. 

Today, big changes are afoot in a region that has been racked by an insurgency spread across two decades. Despite the heavy army presence, or perhaps because of it, new institutions are slowly coming up to match the rising expectations of a new generation. Prominent among them is the Baba Ghulam Shah Badshah University.

The university is eight kilometers off the Mughal road, and a leap of faith in more ways than one. Named after a local Sufi saint, this seat of learning seems to rise from the middle of nowhere, at the foothills of the snowcapped Pir Panjal mountain range. It was started a decade ago by a retired Kashmiri police officer with a Rs.20 crore donation from local shrines. With additional public donations and government grants that followed, the university has been able to set up labs, hostels, classrooms and libraries.

The infrastructure and facilities does bring in local students in large numbers. Hostel food is not bad and cheering at cricket matches here does not attract sedition charges. However, in a state where parents are wary of sending their children to universities in distant parts of India, the biggest challenge is to attract – and retain – good professors. Local employment prospects continue to be grim.


On our way back to Jammu, a pink mini-bus zips past a hairpin bend. In hills and valley that have seen more guns and bullets than books or pencils, Simran Coach has a big banner quite different from those outside the army camps. It simply says, "O God Help Me".

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LINKS:

Mughal Road -- http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Ancient-Mughal-road-is-a-new-big-tourist-site-in-JK/articleshow/22188250.cms?referral=PM

Wiki - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mughal_Road

Chingus Fort -- http://explorejk.com/heritage/chingus-fort/

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Life-Saving Drugs - The Great Game

"Just as you cannot blame a dog for barking, companies cannot be blamed for seeking profits. The real villains here are governments and public servants who have betrayed public trust."

"Fire in the Blood" is one of the most thought-provoking documentaries I've seen in a long, long time.

It makes you question so many things that you always considered as self-evident truths: R&D costs big money; companies spend billions sifting through thousands of molecules to discover one that can be converted into a medicine or vaccine; Indian companies produce illegal, ineffective copies of patented drugs....and in 87 minutes you realize that all this while, you've been a naive, gullible idiot.

The award winning documentary is about the battle against the HIV-AIDS epidemic in Africa. It is about the role of small individuals and small third-world companies taking on the might of global pharma MNCs. Consider these timelines:
  • The first anti-retro viral (ARV) drug, AZT came out in 1963. It was released 1985, with a patent cover up to 2005. Just as the patent was expiring, Glaxo claimed that the drug was effective only in combination with another drug, and had the patent cover extended patent till 2017. In effect, patent protection for the same drug was stretched and "ever-greened" to 54 years!
  • 1996 - discovery of the triple ARV combo against HIV-AIDS. The drug cost $15,000 /patient/ year.
  • 2000 - Yusuf Hamied of Cipla offered to sell a generic of the triple-combo ARV for $800/year/patient; He offered free know-how to manufacturers in Third World Countries and offered the drug offered free to infected mothers. In response the pharma MNCs launched a massive publicity campaign maligning drugs from developing countries in general, and Cipla in particular.
  • In 2004, Cipla brought down the cost to $360/p/y and finally once country - Uganda - decided to take up the offer to save its people. By then over 10 million more people had died of AIDS.
 Fire in the Blood is also quite instructive about USA's amazing hypocrisy and double-standards when it comes to public access to life-saving drugs..





ICMR: Undue Pecuniary Advantage

According to the WHO, more than 2.3 million children below five years of age die in India annually. Of these, about 334,000 die from diarrhoea-related diseases.

If there is one organization that is responsible for the country's abysmal Infant Mortality Rates (IMR) it must be the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). It calls itself one of the oldest medical research organizations in the world. What has ICMR been doing all these years?

Like most other government research agencies in India, ICMR too has a web-page with a long list of achievements, much of which does not amount to much when it comes to brass-tacks.  However, having worked closely with the organization during 1998-2009, I knew for sure that they did have a large Japanese-funded project at NICED-Kolkata, specially for controlling diarrheal diseases.

The main cast of this project were Dr. Takeda of the International Medical Centre of Japan, his old friend, Dr. N.K. Ganguly of ICMR and Dr. S.K. Bhattacharya of NICED. The project had moved from 'technical cooperation' to a major grant-aid project.

Now it turns out that most of these senior S&T administrators were also using their position for "undue pecuniary advantage". According to a CBI charge-sheet filed against a number of senior ICMR officers including Ganguly and Bhattacharya, they had been using their position to help themselves with real estate worth Rs. 135 million. In June 2013, the Supreme Court granted Ganguly some interim relief, and spared him from being jailed.

What are the actual facts of the case? What does this say about S&T research in India? What happened to the original objective of creating an anti-cholera/diarrhea vaccines?

It is rather ironical that in the midst of all this ICMR continues to set up newer institutions all over the place. Once of them is actually named Desert Medicine Research Center.

I guess they deserted medical research long-long ago.

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LINKS

* http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/India-has-highest-incidence-of-diarrhoeal-deaths-Study/articleshow/20040356.cms

* http://www.jica.go.jp/english/publications/reports/network/vol26/vol_26_5.html

* http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/sc-grants-relief-to-exicmr-chief-in-land-transfer-case/1128416/

* http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Ex-ICMR-chief-others-face-arrest-in-land-scam/articleshow/18551204.cms

* Timelines -- http://www.dayafterindia.com/detail.php?headline=content&catid=4912

* ICMR Achievements -- http://www.icmr.nic.in/highlights.htm

* CAG Report -- http://www.cag.gov.in/html/reports/civil/2009_16SD_CA/chap_10.pdf

* http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-newdelhi/warrants-against-exicmr-chief/article4464381.ece

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Shutdown in Japan


Three years ago this month, we were huddled in an evacuation center in Western Japan, bracing for the next aftershock.

A television flickered to life, and a newsreader wearing a bright yellow helmet, announced that there had been explosions at a nuclear power plant a 100 miles away.  In the days and weeks that followed there were extended power outages. People in the Kanto area were advised not to waste electricity. Escalators stopped working at metro stations, lighting in public buildings was reduced to a bare minimum.

Japan's power situation then turned from bad to worse as all its nuclear plants were shut down one-by-one. Import of fossil fuel shot up.

What is the situation now?

The loss of nuclear capacity resulted in a shift in Japan's energy mix toward oil and natural gas. Japan is now the third largest oil consumer and importer in the world behind the United States and China. It also ranks as the world's largest importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and second largest importer of coal behind China.

(source - EIA, 2013)

The import comes to about 18 quadrillion (10^15) BTU every year.

How long can this be sustained?



LINKS

- EIA on Japan - http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=13711
- EIA on India -- http://www.eia.gov/countries/cab.cfm?fips=IN
- Japan - Rising Trade Deficit -- http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-01-26/japan-record-annual-trade-deficit-shows-import-drag-on-recovery.html
- Difference between CNG / LPG / LNG -- http://www.afsglobal.com/faq/gas-comparisons.html




Wednesday, March 26, 2014

CDRI & Drug Discovery in India


India is currently a world leader in the manufacture of generic drugs. These are generally off-patent medicines marketed under their original chemical name, without advertising.

Since these drugs are usually produced and sold in bulk, profit margins are wafer thin. The real meat in the pharmaceutical business lies in the branded block-buster drugs that have taken years to develop.

How many new drugs have been developed or discovered in India, since 1947?

According to the Central Drug Research Institute (CDRI, Lucknow), the answer is 16. Nearly 70% of these have been developed in CDRI itself.  They are --

  • Centchroman - world's first non-steroidal oral contraceptive  - marketed by Hindustan Latex Ltd under the trade name, Saheli and as Centron by Torrent Pharma.
  • Arteether: antimalarial, from the plant Artemisia annua. Marketed by Themis Chemicals Ltd. under the trade name E-Mal. 
  • Standardised Herbal Remedy (can this be called a drug?):  memory enhancer derived from the plant Bacopa monniera. Marketed as Memory Sure
  • Consap (spermicidal cream) derived from soapnut
  • Bulaquin, an antirelapse antimalarial, comparable to primaquine. Marketed by Nicholas Piramal as a combination therapy along with chloroquine under the trade name Aablaquin. 
  • Gugulipid, a hypolipidaemic, is a standardised fraction of the plant Commiphora mukul. Cipla is marketing it under the trade name Guglip.
  • Chandoniun Iodide - ??
  • Cent bufinodole - ??
  • Centpropazine (antidepressant) - ??
  • Centbucridine, a local anaesthetic mktd by Themis Chemicals Ltd. as Centoblok. 
  • Centimizon -??


The CDRI list seems to be in descending order to oblivion. The further you're down the list, the URLs too go wonky, linking you to completely unrelated pages.

In any case, the only one that remembered seeing at a medical store, was Saheli, and Memory Sure.

If this is what we get after spending public money for 64 years at CDRI?

Which are the other five drugs discovered in India? Do they - hopefully - fare better than CDRI's star-performers?

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LINKS
* "New drugs" from CDRI -- http://www.cdriindia.org/newdrugs.htm
* Centchroman / Saheli -- http://www.cdriindia.org/centchroman.htm
* (ToI, 18 Feb 2012) -- http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/lucknow/CDRI-underlines-its-2011-progress-on-61st-annual-day/articleshow/11932436.cms

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Tastiest Fish

An excellent TED talk starring the stand-up comedian + chef + scholar, Dan Barber.



...and this is the 'fish-farm' he talked about - Faro, Southern Spain