labels: foundation for genetic research, interviews, profiles, management - general
Genes geniusnews
Venkatachari Jagannathan
21 January 2003

Picture: Michele Wambaugh

Chennai: ''The human clone claim may after all be a hoax,'' says Dr Krishna R Dronamraju, president, Foundation for Genetic Research, USA, and advisor to the US secretary of agriculture. ''It took a few hundred attempts to achieve a successful animal clone. By the same count, it should take several hundred attempts before a human clone is created. Further, there is no independent verification on Clonaid's claim.''

Dronamraju, formerly a member of the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee, National Institutes of Health, US government, also advised Hillary Clinton, former US president Bill Clinton's wife, on genetic engineering. He was also a member of Bill Clinton's delegation to India in 2000.

According to Dronamraju, a clone may not be the parent's prototype - physiologically, socially or culturally. ''There is also the ageing effect the clone might develop. Such reproductive cloning does not contribute anything to human society, though it can be commercially advantageous to animal breeding.''

Instead, what scientists and researchers should do is to try and conduct therapeutic cloning, he adds. ''That is, cloning human organs [lungs, heart or kidney] so that organ transplantation can be done with ease. And the success depends on stem-cell research.''

(Recently the Drug Controller General of India had asked the Indian Council of Medical Research to draft comprehensive guidelines on collection, maintenance, preservation as also therapeutic areas to do stem-cell research.)

About Dronamraju. Born in Pithapuram, in the Kakinada district of Andhra Pradesh, he is one of the few Indians to occupy high positions in the American administration. Author of 13 books on genetics and biotechnology, Dronamraju left India in 1963 after obtaining a master's degree in genetics from Agra University.

Dronamraju was in India recently to explain his plans to have more interaction between India and the US in the field of biotechnology and genetics. Excerpts from an interview:

There are apprehensions about the safety of GM [genetically modified] foods in particular and genetic engineering in general.
Applications of genetic engineering and transgenic technologies are still causing concern in certain countries. This is partly due to lack of transparency and public education. A well-informed public will be supportive of beneficial applications. It is easy to appreciate new technologies that can feed growing populations on shrinking land. While there is much concern in Europe, there is little in the US. This is due to public education and transparency.
Many opponents of GM foods are ignorant of basic facts of biology and biotechnology. For instance, the DNA molecule is highly unstable in an atmosphere of warm climate, oxygen, moisture and microorganisms. It can survive for centuries in a cold climate with no oxygen in dry sterile surroundings. DNA in any stray pollen from transgenic crops will disintegrate rapidly in warm climates of Asia/Africa and Central or South America.

Drugs development through the biotechnology route rarely faces any opposition. It is not the case with agriculture. Have seed patents and the resultant profits got anything to do with it?
That may be one of the reasons. But research in biotechnology in the US is largely done or supported by corporates and they would like to have patents for their discoveries. Developing countries should devise an intellectual property regime (IPR) that benefits them. Much of the world's biodiversity is located in the poorest countries, whereas the rich countries have the technology to exploit such biodiversity and enrich themselves even further. On an individual patent level, it is unethical to patent discovered genes, which are considered normal parts of the human body. Patents of neem tree products and others have also been challenged.

Some countries have banned stem-cell research.
The US has banned stem-cell research in some areas, but mainly on religious grounds. But science is progressing in a positive manner and countries like India should take advantage of that.

What kind of interaction are you planning to have between the scientific communities of India and the US through your foundation?
Some of the aims of the privately funded Foundation for Genetic Research are to promote basic research in biotechnology and a closer cooperation between the US and India in science and technology. India and the US have a good relationship, which can be cemented further by organising exchange programmes in science and technology. My foundation organises seminars in India and the US and the participants include scientists from both the countries. We also send young Indian scientists to the US for training.

Talking about scientific research, in India the focus is more on applied research rather than basic research.
To a great length it is true. But such a situation cannot continue for long. Many large and well-to-do Indian corporates do not invest in research and development. There are many prosperous corporate groups in India that should have set up philanthropic research institutions. I have already spoken to a couple of industrial groups here, and I plan to talk to the Reliance group on the subject soon. There should be more private sector money in research.

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