‘We want to ensure the ethics of it’

Preventing, in the subtlest of ways, mosquitoes from transmitting malaria — that tops the strikingly cutting-edge agenda of the Tata Institute for Genetics and Society (TIGS), a collaboration between the University of California San Diego (UC San Diego), the Tata Trusts and the Bengaluru-based Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine.

The Institute, which is also based in Bengaluru, has two arms, TIGS-India and TIGS-UC San Diego, and there’s more on its plate than helping eradicate malaria. By employing the latest in genetic research and technology, TIGS is aiming to address some of the most pressing public health and agricultural security issues confronting India and the world.

Suresh Subramani, the global director of TIGS — and a molecular and cell biologist with exceptional credentials — speaks here to Christabelle Noronha about the year-old Institute, the state-of-the-art work it is concentrating on, and a field of study that has come of age in a hurry.

What are TIGS’s priorities and objectives?

TIGS was created as a partnership between two sister institutions, TIGS-UC San Diego and TIGS-India, with the goal of propagating outstanding research, capacity building and training that banks on the latest genetic technologies to address healthcare and food security in India. We want to do this in a socially conscious and ethical manner, which is why we chose to call it the Tata Institute for Genetics and Society.

TIGS-UC San Diego is at the front lines in developing the latest technologies and most of the applications emerging from that will be done by Indians in India, in an Indian institution for the benefit of India. You can view the San Diego entity as the engine that creates the technology and then trains people and transfers that technology free of cost to the centre in India.

Dr Suresh Subramani

Tell me something about the areas of work the two institutions are involved with.

There are the standard rules of genetics and I would like to equate these to the standard rules of gravity. Now, suddenly, some new technology emerges that enables you to break all those rules and you have the ability to turn gravity on and off — what’s happening with genetics is as significant as that. With the technology we are working on, we see an opportunity to tackle global problems that affect almost every human being.

The first one of these problems is vector-borne diseases. If you take only the mosquito, it has been called the most dangerous organism on the planet. We at TIGS have an opportunity to try and find one more tool to eliminate malaria — and we are talking about ridding the planet of malaria.

If you can tackle mosquitoes, you can tackle insects that destroy crops or create beneficial things that can help deal with, for instance, resistance to antibiotics, the cost of which is estimated to range from hundreds of billions of dollars to trillions of dollars. These are the global problems TIGS is taking on and we want to use India as a platform to show that the talent and the brains exist here to pull this off.

You keep saying “we have this technology”. What is this technology?

The technology has to do with having the ability to edit and manipulate the genetic material in any organism. When you edit a gene or put a foreign gene into an organism, it qualifies as a genetically modified or genetically engineered organism. Much of the underlying basis of this technology is the ability to take the genetic material and change — meaning edit — it, and then engineer it in such a way that it can be used for a beneficial purpose.

DNA sequencing, population genetics, gene editing and gene drives are alien terms for most people. Could you please explain why, as the experts say, advances in genetic research are so crucial for our world?

The basis of the natural beauty and diversity in living organisms is the genetic material that is stored in them in the form of nucleic acids. This genetic material contains the master plan of any given organism, from yeast to human beings. It is also the repository for mutations or changes that enhance our ability to do things. Why some people have a particular disease and others don’t is written into their DNA.

Gene editing, recombinant DNA and the like are tools that allow you to take the DNA sequence that came naturally and manipulate and modify it. The potential to deliver such benefits is especially clear in healthcare and in agricultural production. Of course, in the process you can also conceive of nefarious uses of such technology but that’s a separate point.

We at TIGS have an opportunity to try and find one more tool to eliminate malaria — and we are talking about ridding the planet of malaria.”

How did the collaboration with UC San Diego happen? What attributes do the two partners in the venture bring to the table?

Three essential features made this happen. One, the outstanding science and technology capabilities that exist in UC San Diego; two, the visionary philanthropy of the Tata Trusts; and three, the power of collaboration, meaning the ability to create two institutes and to partner entities here and around the world to achieve our goals.

The collaboration component stands out. This technology was first developed in fruit flies and then applied to mosquitoes. People from all over have come together and today there is this international team that includes experts from India. The time is ripe for the technology to grow by leaps and bounds and that makes it exciting to be part of the endeavour.

As a field of study, genetics has had to face the ‘sinister science’ flak for long. Is that changing?

I want to distinguish technology as a tool from who uses it or how it is used. A hammer can drive a nail into a piece of wood or it can be used to harm someone. Similar is the story with genetic engineering or recombinant DNA or gene editing. The tool itself is revolutionary and there is always a balance between knowing what good can come out of it versus how it can be misused.

The biopharmaceutical industry was valued at $192 billion in 2015 and the figure is estimated to reach $392 billion by 2021, so the technology is certainly having a phenomenal impact. The crucial thing is to be transparent, to listen, to debate and to try and find solutions and not brush aside any concerns that may be there.

That’s why the ‘society’ part is so important. We want to ensure the ethics of it and also the balancing of the cost-benefit ratio.

A Chinese researcher recently claimed that he had helped create the world’s first ‘genetically edited babies’ — and the news has shocked everybody. Should we be shocked?

I think it is appropriate that we be shocked. The reason for the shock is that it is not clear what this person did. He talked about it in a conference and he made certain claims, but people still don’t understand what he did and how he did it, so the whole aspect of reproducibility was not there. This kind of experimentation with humans is banned and the whole story suggested a rogue scientist at work.

Does civil society know enough about the ethics of this science?

I would say no. It is the job of the scientist to explain to people what the consequences of a given technology may be. Some of the information would be technical, so you have to make it understandable for the people most qualified to raise issues or concerns. You have to bring different stakeholders into the debate: governmental agencies, public interest groups, the scientific community, etc. None of the answers to some of the ethical questions are in black and white.

Researchers at the Bengaluru-based TIGS, which works with technology that can help tackle global problems

How does the state of genetic research in India — and its outcomes — compare with what is happening globally? In which areas can we do better?

India has had a long history and legacy of training brilliant minds, yet the country is lagging behind in several areas. One reason is that India invests very little in science and technology. Two, in the biological sciences and genetics, many advances have been enabled by dramatic changes in instrumentation and technology. We don’t develop such technology or any such instrumentation. Third, the average Indian is risk-averse and that’s a handicap. Having said that, I still believe India can make a mark in genetics. We have the potential at this point in time and the window to capitalise on it.

Where is the world headed with genetic research and what can it actually deliver? What kind of breakthroughs can we expect over the next five years, and in the longer term?

The field of genetics has been turned on its head thanks to gene editing technology. The biggest opportunities with gene editing are in healthcare and in agriculture. You can also use the technology to, for example, enhance biodiversity by getting rid of invasive species that exist in particular pockets around the world. These are the changes that will happen in our society, and this is only the beginning.

Your effort is directed at eliminating the mosquito’s ability to cause malaria. What are the chances that you will, in the process, kill the mosquito as well?

If the question is about killing the mosquito, we have been doing it for a long time. People accept implicitly that mosquitoes are being killed and no one is complaining about it, so I want to put this in context. What we are aiming to do is make one species of mosquito incapable of spreading the malaria parasite. That mosquito will still bite — the female of the species, that is — but it won’t give you malaria.

A TIGS researcher at work; the biopharmaceutical industry is estimated to reach $392 billion in value by 2021