Scientific progress made in the last several years in genetic engineering has taken the field forward leaps and bounds. TIGS joins this global pursuit of better human health and agriculture through its research using the latest technologies in genetic engineering. We are now in a position to take important steps towards reducing the burden of mosquito-borne diseases, improving food security through better crops, finding cures for genetic diseases and fighting antimicrobial resistance.
Vector-borne diseases pose a global, human healthcare challenge. Around 350 million cases of mosquito-transmitted diseases are reported globally every year, with India accounting for 850,000 malaria cases in 2017. Mosquitoes in the wild are acquiring resistance to insecticides, the malarial parasite is developing resistance to anti-malarial drugs and malaria vaccines are yet to demonstrate efficacy. We need an integrated understanding of the factors driving the prevalence of malaria, high resolution data on mosquito genetic diversity and new tools to prevent disease transmission by mosquitoes to control malaria, which is a serious concern for India – about 95% of India’s population resides in malaria-endemic areas with an estimated economic burden from malaria around Rs. 11,640 crores. TIGS intends to develop sustainable vector management strategies to limit the spread of the malarial parasite, as well as dengue, chikungunya and Zika viruses, using new tools and technologies, collaborative partnerships and effective community engagement. TIGS currently focuses on gaining a fine scale understanding of the ecology, species diversity and niche overlap in mosquito vector species in disease endemic areas of India. In addition to the mosquito population studies, we are defining the best antibodies and/or nanobodies that will block transmission of the malarial parasite.
The Global Hunger Index 2018 ranks India at 103 out of 119 countries. According to the FAO, about 15% of the people in India do not have enough to eat. With declining availability of cultivable land and water coupled with pest load, a rapid and sustained increase in productivity is becoming the only solution to feed the ever-increasing population. Current trends in the production of agricultural food crops may not be sufficient to provide sustainable solutions unless innovative technologies are adopted to produce food with higher quantity and better quality. New genetic technologies such as targeted genome editing by CRISPR/Cas have the potential to quickly develop crops with desired features that are resistant to biotic and abiotic stresses and/or can use soil nutrition efficiently. The accelerated new breeding technologies can not only reduce long conventional breeding timelines but can also save resources.
Antibiotic resistance is a matter of serious concern in developing nations, including India, where the burden of infectious disease is high and healthcare spending is very low, standing at around 1.2% of the GDP. India has one of the highest bacterial disease burdens in the world. Some of the most common and potentially most dangerous bacterial pathogens are proving drug-resistant. TIGS is exploring pathways to reverse antibiotic resistance in select pathogenic bacteria. The research holds promise in combating superbugs, which are becoming an increasing concern in global healthcare.
Stem Cell Biology with Emphasis on Hematopoiesis
The β thalassemia and sickle cell disorders pose a significant health burden in India. The average prevalence of β thalassemia carriers is 3–4%, which translates to 35 to 45 million carriers in the Indian population. Complete treatments for these blood disorders due to genetic causes are currently not available and they can only be clinically managed. Learning the intricacies in hematopoiesis, the formation of blood cells during embryonic development and adulthood, and the use of stem cells will help us decipher the cellular processes underlying certain cancers and blood disorders and will assist in the development of therapeutic interventions.
Protein Expression, Purification and Antibody Engineering
Antibodies and engineered proteins with similar properties constitute a critical line of defense in conferring immunity against foreign pathogens that affect humans and plants. Research at TIGS aims to engineer genes that encode such fragments and study their stability, affinity, avidity and efficacy correlations to control disease transmission by insect pests.