Dr Gagandeep Kang, executive director of The Translational Health Science Technology Institute (THSTI) in Faridabad, Haryana, is the first woman Indian scientist and researcher to be elected as member of The Royal Society of London along with 50 other scientists globally. She discusses health problems in India and latest research in vaccines with The Indian Express.
What are the core areas you focussed on that were recognised by The Royal Society of London? Are a lot of Indians part of the society?
I have worked for the past 30 years on gut infections in children, trying to understand what infections do to intestinal function, and what the consequences are for physical and mental development. I believe there are about 60 Indians who have ever become Fellows of The Royal Society, and currently there are fewer than 15.
What are the top three health problems you feel the government should prioritise in India, and why?
Tuberculosis — we carry the greatest burden in the world, and drug resistance is a huge threat. The double burden of malnutrition-obesity is increasing, and chronic metabolic disease will continue to rise to overwhelm our health systems. Having said this, we still inadequately address childhood stunting in our country. Road traffic accidents are also a public health issue and require societal commitment to change. There are other issues too — tobacco, dementia, mental health, I have a long list.
The Translational Health Science Technology Institute (THSTI) is working on developing a vaccine to prevent HIV infection. The success in it so far?
We have partnered with the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, and identified and characterised broadly neutralising antibodies from Indian patients who are infected with the Clade C virus. The ability to make these antibodies offers the opportunity to design antigens based on which HIV vaccines can be developed, or use the broadly neutralising antibodies as an adjunct to treatment. This work is being taken forward in partnership with YRGCare in Chennai, AIIMS in Delhi, NARI in Pune and many international groups. We hope that the Department of Biotechnology and other funding agencies will continue to support our translational approach.
You terminated the services of an immunologist in the institute after he was accused of sexual harassment. Do researchers face gender bias in the scientific community? Have you ever experienced it?
I have never personally had to deal with harassment in a professional environment, but it exists. Casual harassment is a fact of Indian society. Ideally in all environments we need to make sure that women feel safe, but to start with at least in professional spaces.
Do you think India witnesses a lack of coordination between health research and its policy implementation? How can we improve it?
Yes, there is a disconnect. We do not frame our own questions and seek to address them without our own resources. We need a coordinated strategy and a willingness to resource research appropriately. This needs a larger discussion which disassembles the current turf of ministries and agencies.
Could you discuss the challenges faced in rotavirus vaccine implementation? Does India still face resistance to vaccines?
The scale of India’s birth cohort makes high coverage challenging but many states are doing an outstanding job of getting vaccines to children. But a lot remains to be done, because we have the largest number of unvaccinated and under-vaccinated children in the world. We also have an active anti-vaccine lobby in the country that operates at many different levels. The recent events with measles in the US and Europe have shown how much damage misinformation on vaccines can do to public health. We need all of society and media in particular to present the facts and avoid one-sided views of science.
Genome editing and stem cell research is gaining prominence but also faces ethical dilemmas. Where does India stand?
We need deeper discussions on the new technologies and the approaches for evaluation of risks and benefits. There is ongoing research in India, in Bangalore and Vellore.
The Government of India-IVI partnership is working on the development of the world’s first oral cholera vaccine. THSTI institute is working in the collaboration. Could you share more details of this research?
We are working with IVI to enable a public sector vaccine manufacturer, Bharat Immunologicals and Biologicals Ltd (BIBCOL), to manufacture an oral cholera vaccine. The Indo-Gangetic area is the home of cholera, and yet we do not have a vaccination programme that addresses this huge public health issue. The Department of Biotechnology, through the National Biopharma Mission, hopes to address the issue of vaccine availability and supply.
What is our latest research on infectious diseases like dengue and vaccines to counter it?
Some great young researchers are studying why some people get severe dengue while others do not, and we are also getting ready to support vaccine research. We do not work on Zika and Ebola, but with Department of Biotechnology support we will be developing facilities that can support vaccine manufacturers who want to develop vaccines for outbreaks. India was a founding partner of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations that is working with WHO on the Ebola outbreak in the DRC, and will develop vaccines for other diseases with the potential to cause outbreaks.