Friday, October 30, 2015

RGCB News: Vigilance Awareness Week; Public Meeting

As part of the Vigilance Awareness Week, RGCB organized an Awareness Symposium for the staff and students on 29th of October 2015 at M R Das Convention Center. The Symposium started with a thoroughly informative presentation on "Preventive Vigilance as a tool of good governance" by Mr. V K Raghukumar, who heads the Vigilance Wing of RGCB. It was quite interesting how he elaborated all aspects of anti corruption efforts at the government level to contain this nasty practice. He also took efforts to convince the gathered audience the statutory guidelines by which RGCB functions to maintain transparency and integrity in all official, administrative and scientific proceedings. 

This was followed by a keynote address by Mr. C M Radhakrishnan Nair, Former Secretary to Government of India and Special Director of CBI. He gave a personal touch to the whole event by narrating anecdotes from his personal experiences in CBI. It was quite refreshing to know how passionate he was about his work that is generally considered a rather sober and boring one. 

An essay competition was held last week among staff and students of RGCB on Vigilance to stimulate a collective thought towards better awareness. The prizes were given to the winners at the end of the meeting. 

From the Director’s Desk:

It amazes me why people always talk about ill earned money as corruption. The Oxford definition of corruption goes as “Dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery; the action or effect of making someone or something morally depraved”, where bribery is defined as “Offering any inducement”. If a person in power, with defined official duties, accepts any favor, exploits any undue influence or opportunity to do or not to do his duty, it will amount to corruption in its actual sense. How many of us had to go searching for personal acquaintances of a person in power to get things done? How many times have we walked into an office saying, "I'm coming with Mr. X's reference" to hasten an otherwise snail pace official process? May it be in public utility services, healthcare, academia, industry or finance? This practice is becoming rampant. We are making the system less approachable to man without "influential reference". Offering money is only one of the ways to get around. Monetary, personal, social or sexual favors have become secret paths for people to get what they should otherwise be getting if the system had functioned normally and certain officials had carried out their duties. That's what needs to change. Every official, as they assign the office, needs to bear in mind that their power comes with immense responsibilities. Their duties are to be carried out in a timely manner, unbiased. As the motto goes, this can be achieved only through industry, integrity and impartiality. As citizens of India, each one of has the moral responsibility to avail services without offering favors, exploring personal relationships or manipulating existing legal structure. And being on the other side of the coin, we also have the responsibility to dispense our duties without succumbing to undue favors of any kind. The irony of accepting favors is that it leaves a lasting liability forcing the recipient of the favor to reciprocate against his will for the giver. If we have to do our duties based on our principles of righteousness, we should not give or receive favors and put ourselves in the difficult spot of obligations that will intensify the vicious cycle of corruption persistent. 

RGCB News: Swachh Bharat Abhiyan

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is a national campaign launched by Government of India in 2014 for improving the environmental conditions of India. The campaign aims to make a ‘Clean India’ by the 150th birth anniversary of the Father of Nation Mahatma Gandhi on 2nd of October 2019. Reaching out to public through various media and strategies, the campaign is now taken up by various public and private organizations, NGOs and common man alike.

As part of the ongoing efforts in this regard, RGCB conducted an awareness lecture at MR Das Convention Center on 28th of October 2015.  Dr. Anju Deepak Unnithan, the Consultant Pediatrician of RGCB addressed staff and students of RGCB, discussing about cleanliness and hygiene with special focus on cleaner habits in children. With an elaborate account on ‘what to’, ‘how to’ and ‘what not to’ in child and adolescent care, she repeatedly emphasized the need for making children aware of the significance of personal and environmental hygiene for building a cleaner India in future. The open session also addressed many queries and concerns of audience about various aspects of personal hygiene and child health.

Dr. Satish Mundayoor, Senior Scientist and Dean of RGCB explained the future plans of RGCB to extend its efforts in this regard through community outreach programs mainly targeting school-going children.  

From the Director’s desk:

Everything seems much better when the efforts begin from grassroots level. This is one such occasion where the efforts are focused to bring changes at the bottom tier so that the effect is more effective and longer lasting. Just as I mentioned in my last message in the context of our fight against corruption, the efforts to make India a cleaner place to live in has to start from each individual. And the importance of initiatives focusing our younger generation cannot be undermined. Children have modeling behavior. They try to imitate and to a great extent try to build the persona of adults around them. So the best way to teach them anything is by setting us the best example from which they can learn. A well-behaved child definitely grows up to a responsible citizen. What we need today is not a clean India on the 2nd of October every year when the whole nation gets on streets with broomsticks and dustpans. We need a nation that is clean and livable all throughout the year and for all the years to come. What we do today should benefit us as well as our future generations. So let our efforts be directed towards that goal. I appreciate the noble cause of the nation-wide campaign of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and humbly urge each and every member of RGCB team to not only practice clean habits but also to create awareness among people around us towards a ‘Clean India’.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Knowledge: not just deeper, but also wider

As we learn a particular subject deeper and further, we tend to forget the world outside. It is equally important to widen our knowledge. No piece of information goes waste in the long run of life. No subject is useless no matter what we are professionally qualified for.

Everyone knows Samuel Morse, the inventor of telegraph and Morse code. But how many of us know that he was an artist with formal training in medieval art, religious philosophies and a totally unrelated skill, horse riding? Though an artist by passion and profession, he never narrowed down his interests to his areas of activities only. During his college days in the University of Yale, he used to attend lectures on Mathematics and Physics just out of curiosity. He always kept his knowledge bank open for any piece of new information he could gather from his peers or teachers. He never intended to pursue any career other than that of an artist but always kept it a point to interact with people from all strata of society to learn more. Inventing a faster mode of long distance communication was least of his priorities though. He was leading a contented life as a celebrated artist. Unfortunately, while working on his portrait of Lafayette at Washington DC, he received the death news of his wife who was residing at New Haven, Connecticut, via a horse messenger days after she had already died of illness. Dejected and regretful of not knowing about his wife’s ill health earlier, he started to think about the limitations of long distance communication of those days. Thanks to his interest in applied mathematics and his foundations in electromagnetism, he developed the very first concept of single-wire telegraph and opened the wide world of faster communication systems. Many improvements have occurred over years and man has literally conquered distance. May it be between next-door neighbors or between faraway continents; the speed of transfer of information from one point to another is unbelievably fast, convenient and indispensable these days. All thanks to Samuel Morse’s interests in fields out of his areas of work. 

Intelligence is never the activity of a single isolated higher center in brain. It is the sum of many intricate interconnections and billions of chemical conversions in neurons every single moment. While the inherent ability to act smart is only a foundation for our intellectual capabilities, the knowledge we acquire over time adds tremendously to the intellectual practicality of every human being.  Knowledge is the mightiest power one can achieve in a lifetime. Nothing is more wholesome and nothing can help us in all situations alike. It is a common cliché in scientific world to demean a subject outside our circle as “not of interest”, “not useful for funding opportunities” or even “what can anyone gain out of this?” Well, we never know what piece of information may become useful or even trigger a train thought to a totally unallied discovery. The ever-competing world is evolving into an amalgam of interdisciplinary. No subject is independent today. So, keep our eyes and ears open. Treat all kinds of information with respect, may it be of science, art, history or technology. May it be from a scholar or a toddler. We can never say “enough” to gaining knowledge.

RGCB News: Vigilance Awareness Week

The Government of India and the Central Vigilance Commission have called for the entire nation to observe Vigilance Awareness Week from 26th to 31st of October 2015. The theme of the program is “Preventive Vigilance as a tool of Good Governance” this year. Keeping in mind that each and every citizen of India has the moral responsibility to add his share in the fight against corruption, RGCB abides by the union government’s call for preventive vigilance.

Today, the entire staff of RGCB gathered in the Main Campus atrium at 11.00am to officiate the commencement of this week’s programs with the Vigilance Awareness Pledge. Mr. K M Nair, the Chief Controller of RGCB led the team comprising staff and students of RGCB.


We, the public servants of India, do hereby solemnly pledge that we shall continuously strive to bring about integrity and transparency in all spheres of our activities. We also pledge that we shall work unstintingly for eradication of corruption in all spheres of life. We shall remain vigilant and work towards the growth and reputation of our organization through our collective efforts. We shall bring pride to our organizations and provide value-based service to our countrymen. We shall do our duty conscientiously and act without fear or favor.

From the Director’s desk:

India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world today. With rich human resources, we could be the most fertile land for scientific, technological, agricultural and educational entrepreneurships. But unfortunately, we have the dark side of having a low global Corruption Perception Index (higher the better) keeping us among the corrupt countries of the world for past many years. There is no point reproaching each other and getting dejected over a dark past. It’s high time each of us took bold steps to fight against corruption in our country. The struggle will be long, hard and not be easily fruitful. It is equally important that each citizen of India should be determined not to be corrupt as well as not to aid corruption at any level of our lives. As the theme suggests, preventing the occurrence of corruption is easier and more effective than correcting an existing deceitful system. Let’s show the path of righteousness to the younger generations so that future of India can be corruption-free and aid in good governance and excellent operational results.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Soft Skills Drill: Preface

Educational system in India is so skewed these days that the primary and in fact the sole aim of this enterprise is to equip students with hard skills. True that Indians excel so well in hard skills that they prove to be one among the topmost ethnic groups of scholars globally. There's no question that the quality of education with respect to the volume and depth of knowledge imparted is truly world class in India right from primary education to that of graduation. And Indians do consistently prove that their intelligence and knowledge are par excellence in any field undertaken.

But, it's quite a shame that Indians find themselves lacking core soft skills when out of school and in the practical world of career seeking and building. While hard skills are totally dependent on the technical and academic training of the person, soft skills develop out of one's personality. Skills that would enable you to be competent contender in practice. Though the basic flair is usually inherent, there are a lot of improvisations and additions that can be done to augment one's soft skills. As these basically determine anyone's personal and interpersonal skills, employers are increasingly seeking them in potential employees. Though these skills are not quantifiable or measurable in the standard sense, the persona of a person is easily scalable for trained eyes aka the interview boards, selection committees or even Professors themselves. 

Just imagine a situation where you are the ace scholar in a particular subject and you know how to tackle any challenge in your field with your academic merit but unfortunately, lack communication skills, work strategies or practical confidence. That’s the beginning of the decline in your career graph. In short, it’s not just academic knowledge and intelligence that matter. The basic skills to nurture healthy interpersonal interactions are essential in any profession. Soft skills, as the term suggests, are a set of qualities desirable in a formal work environment for a person to rise above routine challenges in any profession. In sooth, as these skills simply draw the boundary line between success and failure today, it may not be wrong to call them life skills. RGCB Blog will run a series called “Soft Skills Drill” in the coming posts where each of the following skills will be discussed in detail. Stay tuned.

·         Effective communication
·         Problem solving and decision making
·         Learning and information handling
·         Leadership and management
·         Ethics, etiquette and professionalism
·         Team cohesion and team management
·         Creative writing
·         Presentation and public speaking
·         Self confidence, self esteem, self motivation, self awareness
·         Trust building, healthy competition and conflict management
·         Cultural fit and personal boundaries

Here’s a quick quiz for a self-evaluation of where we stand in our soft skill development and utilization. There’s no fixed right or wrong answer to any of the questions. These are situations in daily life to which each person responds in his own ways. Try it.

Meet the Expert

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics

British economist Angus Deaton wins the 2015 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel for his works on consumption patterns in societies and extrapolating that to measure poverty, notably in India.

One doesn’t have to be a trained economist, mathematical genius or an expert financial analyst to notice that in spite of increasing gross national as well as per capita income levels, a significant fraction of India is still poverty-stricken. It puzzled economists and financial reformers for a long time. Thanks to the tremendous efforts and research at various levels of economy by British economist Angus Deaton, we now know the scientific reason behind that.

From time immemorial, standard parameters for assessing the economic status and growth of any society had been income at individual as well as social level. Contrary to the conventional beliefs, Deaton analyzed selected cohorts for their consumerist patterns and individual consumption habits to delve deep into the intricacies of economic growth or its lack in any society. Being a social platform with people thriving at varied economic tiers as well as of extreme diversities in socio-cultural behavior and with its fast growing economy, India served as the best practical laboratory for him. Studying Indian economic patterns over decades in selected cohorts, he formulated the exact parameters based on individual and collective consumption to measure economic status of any society.

His observations became all the more significant when he rejected the recommendations of the panel headed by C Rangarajan, the former Reserve Bank Governor on alleviating poverty in India. He defended himself with reformative recommendations based on his observations of Indian economy. He suggested to completely delinking existing economic stratifications, including APL-BPL grouping, to reform policies.  Indian government and its formal financial advisors are still working on these complex strategies for effective alleviation of poverty in India.

Though his work was mainly based on Indian scenario, it has global applicability irrespective of the country being rich or poor. Any growing economy is currently evaluated based on the criteria put forth by him. This gives a more sensible and clear understanding of economic dynamicity worldwide. This contribution was honored by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences yesterday with the 2015 Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics at Stockholm, Sweden. Born in Scotland, Angus Deaton is currently an academician at Princeton University. His present work is on reforming the parameters and indices to measure health in various societies.

With this we come to the official end of this year’s Nobel “season”. RGCB Blog admires and acknowledges the works of excellence of all the eminent awardees and their perseverant teams.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Nobel Peace Prize

Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet wins the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for its decisive role in establishing peace and national security through democracy in Tunisia during the Jasmine Revolution in 2011.

When Tunisian Jasmine Revolution spread across the Middle East and North Africa as the Arab Spring and hundreds died for the noble cause of basic human rights, seldom did we spare our time to ponder more about it. When tens of thousands of people fled from the unrest Syria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia, we never thought a peaceful internal coalition can actually bring in peace and consensus in any of these countries. When the internal uprisings in all the involved countries either descended into chaos and violence or sprang back to Arabic autocracy, Tunisia, with just over a ten million population, successfully saved themselves from a civil war and restored peace through its first running democratic system. 

Thanks to the unity and political strategies of a consortium of four liberal organizations in Tunisia, the country ousted its then President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 and held general elections for the first time in their history. The Tunisian General Labor Union, The Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, The Tunisian Human Rights League and The Tunisian Order of Lawyers formed National Dialogue Quartet to stay put through a revolution that completely changed the prevailing social and political systems of the country. The autocratic administration, infamous for corruption, political repression, denial of basic human rights including freedom of expression and gender equality dug its own grave when unemployment, poor living conditions and inflation made life unbearable for Tunisians. With rallies, public protests, self emulation and powerful objections, the Quartet led the nation to eventual democracy and national security. Abolishing Shariya Law, constructing transparent civil bodies and revamping Tunisian constitution, the country is now marching towards liberation.

As the Norwegian Nobel Committee stated this is a perfect example that peace and consensus can be nonviolently obtained by unified action of people. And that is possible even to Islamic organizations. Sending obvious message to organizations resorting to violence for their cause, the Committee honored the contributions of Tunisian Quartet with the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize yesterday. Let's hope this will serve as an encouragement for Tunisia to stay democratic and the Middle East and North Africa to rekindle Arab Spring. Let this also be an inspiration for rest of the world to respect equality and basic human rights. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Nobel Prize in Literature

Belarusian writer and journalist Svetlana Alexievich wins the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature for her extensive writings on narrations and recollections of Soviet victims of wars and nuclear radiations.

Many of us might’ve read Voices from Chernobyl with utmost horror and despair back in 2005 when the English version of the book initially hit bookstores around the world. It was one of the most truthful and horrifying accounts of the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl in 1986 that, unlike other disasters, left more survivors than dead. But the irony was that the survivors were the real victims. Death, in fact, was a blessing in disguise for the tens of thousands of people in Ukraine and millions of people across Europe exposed to catastrophic radiations over many years to come.
“I'm not afraid of God. I'm afraid of man.
At first we asked people: "Where is the radiation?"
"See where you're standing? That's where it is."
So it's everywhere? [Cries] There are many empty houses. People left. They were scared.”

Many of us had that moment of revelation of the impact of man’s actions gone wrong as we flipped through the pages of this firsthand narrative about fear, misery and agony of more than five hundred people from Chernobyl. The author painted a vivid picture of how man was insane soon after the disaster, not knowing how to contain the catastrophe, destroyed buildings and dug deep pits to bury debris and land which were exposed to radiation, shot all animals of the region dead fearing their fur to emit radiation. With nothing to be perceived by any of the sense organs, radiation changed the lives of these people forever. Skin peeling off in layers, hair falling off in bulk, blisters developing all over the body, fetuses dying in utero, hundreds succumbing to multi-organ failure, the nightmarish days were only beginning for them. With congenital malformations, developmental delays and malignancies, they are still paying a huge penalty.

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster is only one of the narratives of disaster victims of former Soviet Union by Svetlana Alexievich. She has written extremely disturbing and chilling accounts from victims and witnesses of Soviet-Afghan war and World War II in Zinky Boys: Soviet voices from a forgotten war and The Unwomanly Face of War.  As the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy Sara Danius stated in the Press Conference yesterday, “It’s not really about a history of events. It’s a history of emotions.”

Born in Ukraine and brought up in Belarus, Svetlana is an investigative journalist by profession. She writes in Russian, but many of her works of excellence have been translated to English, which made her popular worldwide. As her accounts were eye-openers to the injustice to mankind, she has been at the receiving end of wrath of many governments from time to time, which made her a political refugee in 2000s. She currently resides at Minsk, Belarus.

It was quite interesting to note that journalists from around the world, who usually sit in silence with sober faces during the announcement of Nobel Prizes in Press centers, welcomed yesterday’s announcement with a loud round of applause. Thanks to Svetlana’s stellar literary career, a journalist is being honored by the Prize for the first time in history. Also, the Swedish Academy chose a writer of non-fiction, breaking a tradition of half a century.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Paul L Modrich, Tomas Lindahl and Aziz Sancar share the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their contributions towards the mechanistic studies of DNA repair.

Nobody needs an introduction to DNA. Nor to its structure or function. These aspects of life have become the quintessential part of our knowledge that even high school science textbooks dedicate chapters for that. So much for what's known but so much more for what's still mysterious to mankind. Being the backbone of life is a great responsibility for a chemically labile molecule like DNA. Constantly exposed to biological, chemical and physical agents which can potentially alter the structure and hence the function, these molecules have to be extremely on guard to keep its integrity intact. Well, if these molecules could determine how the entire living race should be on earth, we should've guessed that they have their own extremely efficient system to repair their defects. 

The works of Paul L Modrich, Tomas Lindahl and Aziz Sancar were more than just this guess. They probed and deciphered three of the most intricate and systematic mechanisms by which DNA repairs its single-strand defects during replication. 

Base Excision Repair
Swedish cancer researcher Tomas Robert Lindahl described and isolated DNA ligase and DNA glycosylases. He demonstrated how DNA glycosylases remove inappropriate nucleotides to form apuric or apyramidnic (AP) sites in DNA single strands that are then nicked by AP endonucleases. A short or long patch repair will then seal the resulting break with the correct sequence of nucleotides.

An MD, PhD by training from Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Lindahl is still an active researcher in cancer biology. He holds the positions of emeritus group leader at Francis Crick Institute and emeritus Director of Cancer Research UK at Clare Hall Laboratory in the United Kingdom.

Nucleotide Excision Repair
When base excision repair corrects small defects, American chemist Paul Modrich described another mechanism by which bulky defects are repaired in DNA. DNA addicts formed mostly due to ultraviolet radiations are removed in bulk and the resulting breaks in single strands are sealed by DNA ligase using the other strand as template.

Paul Modrich holds a graduate degree from Stanford University. He is still an active investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He is academically active and is a Professor of Biochemistry at Duke University School of Medicine, USA

Mismatch Repair
Turkish chemist Aziz Sancar demonstrated the evolutionarily conserved process of mismatch repair by which incorrect base pairing that escapes proofreading during semi conservative replication of DNA is corrected. Efficiently mediated by a set of proteins, this is one of the most important reasons for DNA fidelity over millions of years of evolution.

Aziz Sancar was born in Turkey and earned his doctorate from University of Texas. He is currently a tenured Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at University of North Carolina School of Medicine, USA.

Though these are the basic facts we learn even in our initial years of scientific journey, tremendous efforts and precise experimentations were involved in deciphering these complex mechanisms. These efforts were honored by the coveted Nobel Prize in Chemistry yesterday by the Swedish Academy of Sciences. Thanks to the teams of these eminent scientists, we are one step ahead in comprehending the intricacies of life and go forward in our endeavor towards conquering the challenges of life, disease and death.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Nobel Prize in Physics

Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B McDonald share the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of neutrino oscillations.

It is postulated that the Bing Bang produced equal amount of matter and antimatter. If matter collides with antimatter, both will disappear in a flash of energy. So if there's equal amount of matter and antimatter in universe, these collisions should be very frequent and inevitable. So why isn't everything just light and sound and heat? Why is there so much particulate matter? Or simply the question is why do we exist the way we are and not just turn into energy and disappear into space? This puzzled Particle Physicists for over half a century before a consortium of scientists around the world answered it with the simplest explanation a decade ago. Thus changing the very fundamentals  of Standard Model Physics once and forever. 

Neutrinos are the second most abundant particles in the universe after photons. Very elusive in nature, they hardly interact with anything. These subatomic particles were considered massless ever since they were discovered by Clyde Cowan and Frederick Reines in 1956. It was thought that their existence didn't change anything in universe and hence the name Neutrino (little neutral one in Italian). Neutrinos are produced during nuclear reactions, hence abundantly produced in the core of stars including the Sun and atmospheres as well as cores of planets. Though abundant, we do not feel its presence, thanks to its neutral nature. A billion neutrinos pass through our bodies every second. But being ubiquitous, they do not change anything they pass through. It is said that a neutrino can pass through a light-year (six trillion miles) of lead without colliding with a single atom. But occasionally, they do collide with atoms and release charged particles like electrons, muons or taus (heavier electrons) depending on which they are classified into three flavors. Earth receives neutrinos mainly in two ways. Solar neutrinos from the solar core reactions and atmospheric neutrinos from particle shower. Based on cosmic reactions, the amount of each neutrino flavor reaching earth had been theoretically calculated by quantum physicists decades before. 

A consortium of scientists in Canada, USA, UK, Portugal and Japan started studying neutrinos in 1990s. The team set up two large observatories deep inside earth to avoid surface disturbances. The Super Kamiokande Observatory was placed 1000 meters deep inside a zinc mine under Mount Kamioka 250kms north of Tokyo, Japan. It is a stainless steel tank containing 50000 tons of ultra pure heavy water to receive atmospheric neutrinos, viewed by 11000 photomultiplier tubes (PMT). The PMTs pick up electrons ejected from heavy water molecules on collision with electron neutrino and give light signals. Japanese Physicist Takaaki Kajita headed the team. The Subdury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) was placed 2100 meters deep inside a nickel mine in Ontario, Canada. With an acrylic vessel containing 1000 tons of ultra pure heavy water and 9600 PMTs, the team headed by Canadian Physicist Arthur McDonald studied solar neutrinos. After decade-long meticulous experimentations and observations, the teams reported that though the total number of neutrinos calculated theoretically was proved to be accurate practically, the number of each flavor was wrong. More precisely, they reported how neutrinos flipped from one flavor to another as they travelled through space. Termed Neutrino Flavor Oscillations, this redefined time and space in a whole different dimension unknown till then. By the basic theories of Quantum Physics, neutrinos should have mass to oscillate.

Breaking the initial cracks in the foundation of Standard Model Physics with non-zero mass neutrinos, oscillating from one flavor to another paved way to a new branch of Particle Physics with infinite possibilities. Though tremendous efforts of a large global team were involved in this, the two pioneers of the field were honored with 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics yesterday. Both of them expressed their inadequacy as individuals in the field and dedicated the honor to the whole team. 

The simplest explanation for why we do not disappear as energy is that the so-called neutral, ubiquitous, elusive neutrinos choose their flavors from time to time and escape from their corresponding antineutrinos. Hence matter is constantly chosen over energy. And we exist today. A good start, right?

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Satoshi Ōmura, William C Campbell and Youyou Tu share the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 2015 for their work against parasitic infestations

Approximately 2.4 billion people and more than a hundred countries around the world are affected by parasites. Parasitic infestation had become a huge social and economic burden in affected populations than a mere health problem in the latter half of last century. As affected children failed to attend schools and adults failed to go to work, these diseases had been contributing to the vicious cycle of poverty and illness in less developed countries for past many decades. Thanks to the commitment and foresight of a group of scientists utilizing available resources in the best possible way, we have two compounds that made it to the essential drug category at affordable prices all over the world.

Nematodes and Ivermectin
Soil bacteria and their secondary metabolites had been the focus of therapeutic research from time immemorial. Japanese researcher Satoshi Ōmura isolated around fifty species of bacteria from a local golf course in Shizuoka Perfecture, Japan. A golfer himself, Ōmura attributes his instincts to collect soil from the golf course to his love for the sport. Out of these, one species which proved to be unknown till then was Streptomyces avermitilis. After meticulous cultures and experimentations, he deduced that secondary metabolites from these cultures completely cleared nematodes in experimental mice. Collaborating with William Cecil Campbell of Merck Institute of Therapeutic Research, New Jersey, he isolated the active secondary metabolite Avermectin. On further studies by Campbell, the compound was purified. Its structure was deciphered and pharmacodynamic and pharmacokinetic properties were elucidated. A hydrogenated derivative of Avermectin, called Ivermectin was found to have greater potency, bioavailability and less adverse effects. In 1981, after successful clinical trials, Merck marketed this drug against nematode infestations. For the past three decades and a half, this drug had been effectively used for treating some of the most insidious and intractable tropical parasitic infestations like Onchocerciasis, Strongyloidosis, Ascariasis and Filariasis to name a few.
Satoshi Ōmura who was overjoyed to know his achievement yesterday emphasized the need for us to go back to nature for productive research. He is still a very active researcher with more than five hundred publications to his credit. Currently, he serves as Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry and Chemistry at Kitasato University, Tokyo.
William C Campbell, a biochemist and parasitologist by training and profession has retired from his productive career at Merck Institute of Therapeutic Research and is currently a Research Fellow Emeritus at Drew University, New Jersey, USA. He expressed his utter disbelief when a representative of Nobel Assembly called him to inform his achievement. “You must be kidding”, was his reaction. He emphasized the tremendous team work behind materialization of the drug and dedicated the Prize to the whole Merck research team.

Malaria and Artemisnin
Malaria is a fatal parasitic infestation if not treated effectively. With malarial parasite Plasmodium getting more and more resistant to quinine and chloroquine, the standard choices of treatment, the dire need for newer modes of treatment was increasing. Youyou Tu, formally trained in Chinese traditional medicine and a product of Chinese Cultural Revolution, got involved in antimalarial research in 1969. Her team studied more than 2000 herbs for potential antimicrobial properties. The most efficacious among them was the extract from the herb Artemisia annua. But unfortunately, the adverse effects of this extract were huge in in vivo experiments. Referring an ancient text of Chinese traditional medicine A Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies A Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies dated 350AD by Alchemist Ge Hong which recommended “a handful of ginghao immersed in two litres of water, wring out the juice and drink it all”, she isolated and purified the active principle Artemisnin. This proved to be a very effective antimalarial agent with least side effects and good bioavailability. The results were published in Chinese Medical Journal in 1979. Novartis collaborated with her team to market the drug globally and since 1990 Artemisnin and its derivatives save the lives of millions affected by malaria around the world. It is manufactured semisyntetically, still relying on mass cultures of the herb and modified for better pharmacogenic properties.
Youyou Tu has worked as a researcher in many institutions including Peking University and Academy of Chinese Medicine. But she was not known to many in China or abroad until yesterday when she was awarded the Prize. She is known as the Professor of three Nos- she has no postgraduate degree, no research experience in world class institutions and no membership in any Academy of Sciences in China or abroad. She now leads a retired life with her family in Beijing, China.

Interesting facts
It is very interesting to know that none of the scientists involved in the research of these two antiparasitic drugs holds the patent for these compounds. As these compounds were discovered and found to be potentially marketable, the research teams gave the rights to Merck and Novartis to manufacture the drug in large scale and meet the global demand. This was the prime reason why these drugs became globally available at affordable prices thus making them to the list of essential drugs worldwide. It is also commendable that since 1987 Merck has been supplying Ivermectin free of cost to more than 100 nations badly affected by river blindness (Onchocerciasis) which is the second most common cause of blindness due to infection. 
The Prize was awarded to two works. One half of the Prize goes to Ōmura and Campbell for their contributions in Ivermectin discovery and the other half goes to Youyou Tu for her efforts in the discovery of Artemisnin and its derivatives. Both works involved utilizing natural secondary metabolites. This may be a call for scientists worldwide to go back to nature for answering the unsolved puzzles hovering above us.
All the publications of Youyou Tu except a few recent ones in Nature, were published in Chinese. The Nobel Assembly had to translate and transcribe her works to assess their depth and significance. 
During the press conference declaring the Prizes, a curious Indian journalist asked the Assembly representatives if this meant acceptance of eastern traditional medicine by the west. The Assembly emphasized that modern research can be inspired by traditional medicine as that system has stood the tests of time over centuries. But it was the efforts of researchers to extract the active principles from these medicines, elucidate their properties and bring these compounds to the market accessible and affordable to the global community that needs acceptance and acknowledgement. Well, that gives Indian scientists working on Ayurveda inspired research, room to think wider and bigger.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The story and glory of Nobel Prize

October is that time of the year when the scientific, literary and peace enthusiasts from across the globe zoom in their attention to the various press centers in Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Karolinska Institutet and Swedish Academy in Stockholm, Sweden and the Norwegian Nobel Institute, Oslo, Norway. Here’s a brief account of some of the well-known facts about the coveted Prize and the man behind it.

Alfred Bernhard Nobel

Alfred Bernhard Nobel had a humble childhood with his seven siblings in Stockholm with his parents Immanuel and Caroline Nobel. Poverty stricken, four of Immanuel’s children succumbed to death. An engineer by training, Immanuel moved to Russia and started his own business of machine tools and explosives for mines. The business prospered bestowing young Alfred with opportunities to get good formal education in world-class training centers. Unfortunately, the family had to return to Sweden due to unforeseen bankruptcy. Back in Stockholm, Alfred experimented with explosives in his father’s backyard. The black gunpowder which was popularly used those days had relatively unknown contents and unpredictable results. Though in 1847 Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero invented a more powerful liquid nitroglycerin, it wasn’t used as an explosive as the reaction couldn’t be controlled or contained. Alfred experimented extensively, risking many lives of his factory workers, finally designed the very first detonator and blasting cap to contain nitroglycerin explosion, which were later patented. Later, he found out that mixing porous siliceous earth kieslguhr with nitroglycerin makes the explosion containable thus leading to the discovery of the blockbuster explosive dynamite. This was put to use in numerous ways, for cutting canals, blasting tunnels, mining, quarrying, building roads and railroads. His business empire widened in no time and he amassed immeasurable assets. An ever enthusiastic researcher and consistent explorer, Alfred held 355 patents in explosives and the related tools in later years which include the infamous ballistite (predecessor of cordite) and gelignite.

Alfred Nobel’s lab in Krummel, Germany where his extensive experiments on explosives had taken place once.

Though extremely successful in his business, he was known to be an utterly depressed man in close circles. With no close family of his own, his contemporaries remembered him to be dejected in personal life. It is assumed that, on 12th April 1888, when his brother Ludvig Nobel died in France, French newspaper Ideotie Quotidienne mistook it as Alfred Nobel and published an obituary titled “Le marchand de la mort est mort” meaning “The Merchant of death is dead”. Alfred, who was then 55 years old, is believed to have had a serious reflection on his life reading his own obituary in which he was portrayed as a ruthless facilitator of mass murders. He earnestly wanted to change the way world would remember him posthumously. Eight years after this life-changing incident he succumbed to a fatal cerebrovascular accident on 10th December 1896 in Italy. At the time of his death, he held an expansive business empire of more than ninety factories around the world and had assets worth nearly $250m. It came as a total surprise to his extended family, friends and colleagues that contrary to his previous will, he had allocated 94% of his assets to a Trust to be formed by young engineers Rudolf Lilljequist and Ragnar Sohlman. It was stated in his last will that the Trust is to recognize outstanding efforts for the betterment of mankind through breakthrough findings in Physics, Chemistry and Medicine. An ardent art-lover and poet himself, he wanted to acknowledge great literary contributions “in the right direction” for which a prize was allocated. His close association with pacific Bertha Von Suttner is believed to be his drive for devoting a prize “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses." (Bertha Von Suttner won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905 for her works against international armament.) After many legal battles between relatives and business associates of Alfred, the Nobel Foundation was formed by the Trust on 29th June 1900 and the Prizes were awarded from 1901. The Nobel Foundation is now worth no less than three quarter of a billion US dollars. 

Excerpt from the will of Alfred Nobel 

“The whole of my remaining realizable estate shall be dealt with in the following way: the capital, invested in safe securities by my executors, shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind. The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses. The prizes for physics and chemistry shall be awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences; that for physiological or medical work by the Caroline Institute in Stockholm; that for literature by the Academy in Stockholm, and that for champions of peace by a committee of five persons to be elected by the Norwegian Storting. It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not.
As Executors of my testamentary dispositions, I hereby appoint Mr Ragnar Sohlman, resident at Bofors, Värmland, and Mr Rudolf Lilljequist, 31 Malmskillnadsgatan, Stockholm, and at Bengtsfors near Uddevalla…..”
Paris, 27 November, 1895
Alfred Bernhard Nobel

The Prize

All the Prizes except that for peace are awarded by Sweden. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm, Sweden awards the Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is awarded by the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden. The Swedish Academy awards the Nobel Prize for Literature. Whereas, the Prize for peace is awarded by a five-member committee nominated by Norwegian Parliament. The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel was established by Sweden’s Central Bank in 1969 when the Nobel Foundation gave a generous donation to the bank on its 300th anniversary.
Even though, the last will of Alfred Nobel states to recognize the works of the previous year, the Prizes are given many years later only after the achievements are proven to have stood the tests of time. The respective bodies send out 3000 applications to members of academies, university professors, scientists, previous Nobel Laureates, members of parliamentary assemblies and selected others for their nominations for these Prizes for the coming year. The applications are received by January and shortlisted to 300. The nominators are chosen in such a way that as many countries and universities as possible are represented over time. The scrutiny and selection processes are strictly confidential and the list of nominees is kept in secrecy for a period of fifty years. Every year, the names of winners of the Prizes are announced in the first week of October and the annual Prize Award Ceremony is conducted on 10th December (the death anniversary of Alfred Nobel) in Stockholm, Sweden. The Peace Prize Award Ceremony is held in Oslo, Norway on the same day. The Prize includes eight million Swedish Kronor ($960,000), a diploma customized for the recipient with their picture and citation and a gold medal. A total of 889 eminent persons and organizations from around the world have been honored since 1901.

The Medal

As the pioneers in their respective fields are being honored this week, RGCB Blog will do an exclusive segment on this year’s Nobel Laureates in the coming days. Stay tuned.