Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What IISc plans to do with Infosys co-founder Kris Gopalakrishnan's Rs. 2.2 billion

The sylvan campus of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore offers some of the best physical and intellectual surroundings to conduct research. But being a government institution, it has always to function within rules that often slow down work, let alone research. Many top government institutions in the country like IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) have been looking to break free from these restrictions, by setting up entities that would enjoy the best of both worlds: government funding as well as flexibility of operations.

IISc had done it once, and was looking for more opportunities to do so. IISc is one of the premier fundamental research organisations in India. Its scientists focus on basic research, but its management had been thinking of a translational research facility for some time, to take the fruits of the institute's research to the public. Nothing seemed more attractive than the area of biology, where research discoveries have immediate medical applications. Translational research needed money, often far more than basic research.

The idea remained on paper for a while, with no one willing to fund such a non-commercial venture. While the IISc management was thinking about these problems, one of its senior scientists was nurturing her own dreams. Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath, Founding Director of the National Brain Research Centre at Manesar near Delhi, had moved to IISc four years ago to start a centre for neuroscience there. 

Her lab now focuses on neurodegenerative disorders, but she wanted to develop a larger centre that would look at such disorders from an Indian perspective. "This was my dream for a long time," says Ravindranath, "and one day Kris Goplakrishnan walked into IISc and said he would fund such a centre."

Indian Focus
Infosys co-founder Kris Gopalakrishnan — who chose not to speak for this story — had wanted to fund a neuroscience centre in India as he had an interest in the subject. He had two specific interests in the area: neurodegenerative disorders and brain computer interface. IISc already had a rapidly-expanding centre on neuroscience, and so it was ready to work in this area. It was less prepared for a large centre on brain computer interface. So, Gopalakrishnan decided to give Rs. 220 crore (Rs. 2.2 billion) for a brain research centre.

To help IISc build competency in brain computer interface, Gopalakrishnan decided to endow professorships. "A lot of things came together," says IISc Director P Balram. The new brain research centre will be housed outside but near IISc, within the precincts of a hospital. It will be a non-profit society jointly owned by IISc and Gopalakrishnan's Pratiksha Trust. The IISc council is expected to give all formal clearances by next month, and work should start on the centre by April. It will have flexibility that government institutions do not offer, particularly on recruitment and salaries.

It also has committed funding for 10 years, something difficult to guarantee from the government. The centre also fulfils an intense need for brain research centre in the country as well. Dementia — an umbrella term for memory loss — in old age is one of modern society's biggest medical problems.

The Alzheimer's Disease International, a global organisation headquartered in the UK, estimates there are 44.4 million people with dementia in the world, with 62% in developing countries. The cost of dementia in 2010 was $604 billion, 70% of which was in the western countries. Dementia is rising in India, although comprehensive statistics are not available for the country.

Multi-disciplinary Set-up
Specific factors that contribute to dementia in India are not known in detail, and research can help unravel them. For example, there is high prevalence of stroke in India. Is that a reason for large-scale dementia? It is also known that multilingualism delays the onset of dementia. Does that play a role in containing dementia in India? One north Indian village, Ballabgarh near Delhi, has low prevalence of dementia.

People here are physically active, have low cholesterol levels and eat a vegetarian diet. Are these protective factors? Do Indians have genetic components that retard or accelerate dementia? Many diseases these days are diagnosed using biomarkers, specific molecules that signal the onset of a disease. Not in dementia. "Biomarkers have failed to diagnose dementia," says Ravindranath.

"So prediction of dementia requires a huge effort." Multivariate analysis is now the only way to predict dementia, according to Ravindranath. It means analysing different kinds of data using computers. Which is why the new centre will have computation as one of its focus areas. Researching dementia will need the help of clinicians, which is why the brain research centre will be located within a hospital.

The centre will also hire clinicians, a breed of scientists absent in the IISc at the moment. Also present will be imaging specialists, geneticists, epidemiologists, data scientists, not to speak of neuroscientists like Ravindranath, who will be a lead scientist. "We are looking at about 20 lead scientists," says Prakash Khincha, Advisor to IISc.

IISc had earlier started a society called Society for Innovation and Development (SID). It is now located just opposite the IISc campus, and houses many R&D centres funded by various companies. One such centre is the Robert Bosch Centre for Cyber-Physical Systems, for which Robert Bosch Foundation has committed Rs. 110 million every year for 10 years. The money comes with no strings attached.

Gopalakrishnan's grant is twice as much, and would be supplemented by government funding as well. The stage is set for one of India's most ambitious ventures in neuroscience.

Source: The Economic Times, February 25, 2014

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