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Making the most of a head start

Published : Aug 29, 2003 00:00 IST

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The harnessing of information technology to handle the vast amounts of data generated by biological research has created a new tool, bioinformatics. India is poised to play a key role in its development.

THE cutting edge of any emerging science is most often to be found where it meshes seamlessly with other disciplines. The emergence of biotechnology was essentially a seamless "morphing' of biology, chemistry and engineering. But to store, share and study the massive amounts of biological information generated by ambitious programmes such as the Human Genome Project as well as the burgeoning business of pharmaceutical drug discovery, called for special expertise. This was something the information technology business possessed in substantial measure, but it needed that little extra: the ability to discover and analyse patterns and associations within and between sets of biological data; to reuse classical tools of mathematics and computer science in tandem with today's jumbo-sized data handling and storage solutions.

The result was the emergence of a new niche: bioinformatics. Although originally coined in the mid-1980s as a term for the analysis of biological sequence data, bioinformatics today encompasses almost all computer applications in biological sciences. It is hardly surprising, given the parental `genes' of this emerging technology, that India - already called the world's "Back Office" - should cannily promote itself as an equally compelling option when it comes to the as-yet-nascent business of outsourced bioinformatics. But to offer compelling pricing to do someone else's biotech "bull work", while possibly lucrative in the short term, does not exercise the higher computational skills for which India is now known and respected.

Fortunately, the nurturing of the nation's biotechnological competence is something the Indian government put on its agenda almost 17 years ago, even before the word biotechnology had entered most standard dictionaries. In today's competitive technology maidan, that head start is proving crucial.Launched during the Seventh Plan, the Biotechnology Information System (BTIS) network is today a nationwide grid linking the nodal agency, the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), with 10 Distributed Information Centres (DICs) and 50 subcentres, through a satellite-based Virtual Public Network (VPN), created with the help of HCL Infosystems as well as the government's own National Informatics Centre (NIC). From the School of Biotechnology of Madurai Kamaraj University to the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB); from the Rice Genome Project of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Delhi to the Central Plantation Crops Research Institute in Kasaragod, Kerala, and the Cancer Research Institute in Mumbai, the BTIS has become possibly the best example of networked research in this country that addresses biotech challenges as varied as the refinement of a new rice strain, the isolation of a cancer-causing agent in humans to the ultimate challenge: the development of an AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) vaccine.

And in pragmatic recognition of the fact that there are no geopolitical boundaries in today's frontline research in areas like the human genome and other DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)-related challenges, the DBT has also provided mirror sites and links to many of the world's best-known bioinformatics resources, databases and information banks.

Quite a few of the computers that currently handle the formidable number-crunching challenges posed by Indian bioinformatic projects share a common pedigree: they belong to India's only commercially savvy "desi" supercomputer the "Param" series designed and developed at the Pune-based Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC). The latest avatar of this machine, the Param "Padma", a cluster supercomputer capable of a combined 1 teraflop (that is one trillion floating point operations or arithmetical calculations) is expected to provide adequate computational power for Indian institutions to address some of the many challenges posed by the first draft sequencing of the human genome. This may well be the motivation for the imminent creation of a ten-node India Grid (I-Grid) capable of a combined 10 teraflops.

IF bioinformatic challenges of this order know no boundaries, they can hardly be addressed without a seamless integration of all national resources - private as well as public. Which is why some of the leading Indian players in the global IT arena have all within the last one year set up special divisions to address the bioinformatics market. Indeed, more than one market watcher has predicted that this may yet constitute the Next Wave of opportunity for the Indian IT industry.

According to Avendus Advisors, an investment bank that concentrates on IT services which was quoted in July by a business daily, the Indian bioinformatics market is expected to grow to about $15-20 million by 2006, by which time the global opportunity would be around $1.7 billion.

A recent market survey by IDC produced an even rosier picture: the global market that is open for business in bio-IT solutions is already $25 billion and from the current $15 million, the Indian share of the cake could rise to as high as $120 million by 2006. Admittedly, the bioinformatics sector examined by Avendus is only one aspect of the broad biotech-driven IT market that IDC seems to have considered.

But numbers apart, the larger picture is upbeat on both projections. In the light of this emerging market opportunity, BioSpectrum India a publication of the Cyber India group, recently examined the bioinformatics thrust of major Indian IT players. Their findings were interesting:

* Wipro has created a healthcare and life sciences division, which has already earned $2.5 million in the first quarter of the year ending March 2003. It offers IT solutions to drug companies to help them reduce the time for drug discovery and approval.

* Infosys began its own foray into the life sciences arena exactly one year ago.

* Satyam's tie-up with the CCMB to create software tools for genetic and DNA sequencing dates to 2001.

* Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) has located its bioinformatics work in Hyderabad. It is working on a comprehensive Linux-based bioinformatics tool called "Biosuit". It is associated with the DBT's Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics (CDFD) for joint research.

The Indian arms of international players such as IBM, Sun, Intel, SGI, Oracle and Acer also have their biotech-related projects in this country. The Intel-chip fuelled Altix 3000 supercomputer from SGI - the largest Linux cluster in this country - was installed earlier this year at the Supercomputer Education Research Centre (SERC) of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. One of the important tasks of the machine would be gene sequencing and genome mapping.

The DBT is considering a proposal from Sun Microsystems to invest in bioinformatics projects and collaborate with the R&D institutions in the country. It is examining the common ground for such collaboration. The United States-based Silico Insights is creating a tissue testing and molecular profiling facility in Hyderabad with part funding from the Andhra Pradesh Industrial Development Corporation.

All these players are betting on one certainty: that bioinformatics is the next unexplained frontier of the IT business.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Aug 29, 2003.)

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