“Sustainable innovation ecosystem needs robust pipeline of world class scientific & tech inputs”

Exclusive interview with Dr Sanjeev Khosla, Director, CSIR-Institute of Microbial Technology (CSIR-IMTECH), Chandigarh

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Dr Sanjeev Khosla is a fellow of the Indian Academy of Science (IAS), Indian National Science Academy (INSA) and the National Academy of Science, India (NASI). Having received his doctoral degree from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, Dr Khosla completed his postdoctoral studies from the Babraham Institute and the Gurdon Institute in the United Kingdom. His laboratory’s research focus at CSIR-IMTECH is on understanding the epigenetic regulation of gene expression particularly in the context of microbe-host interactions.
In an exclusive interaction, Dr Sanjeev Khosla, Director, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research’s Chandigarh based Institute of Microbial Technology (CSIR-IMTECH) shared his views on India’s innovation ecosystem, priorities as the director, Institute’s role during Covid-19 and much more.

BV LogoHow do you view the innovation ecosystem in India and its status globally? How can we make it better?
A robust pipeline of world class scientific and technology inputs is a key requirement for developing a sustainable ecosystem for innovation. Over the years, India has been backing R&D across scientific institutions and universities. This has augmented the efforts of the Government by creating a scientific environment in our country that is conducive to development of innovative solutions for the requirement of industry and society at large. This is true, whether it is vaccine development or ISRO’s satellite launches. Today the sustainable ecosystem is nurturing start-ups and providing high-end solutions to the technology needs of the world.
We at CSIR-IMTECH provide this eco-system not only by our portfolio of innovative technologies in the field of microbiology and biotech, but also by supporting the start-ups through workshops and meetings to promote innovation and entrepreneurship in life sciences. These tech expositions showcase our translational ideas and support them to create feasible start up plans in the area of Pharma, Medical devices, Diagnostics and Agriculture.
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How is the CSIR-IMTECH making strides in the development of microbial technologies? Currently which are your key focus areas?
CSIR-IMTECH has always strived to perform research in frontier areas of modern microbiology and provide the biotech industry with highest quality of services and innovative solutions in microbial biotechnology.  In this context, the institute has chosen the path of integrated research and development for microbial technology by amalgamating basic and applied research programs in emerging biotechnology and genetic engineering. The vision is to translate the research outcomes into products for unmet needs of the society in general and medical fraternity, in particular.
Over the years, CSIR-IMTECH scientists have excelled in diverse areas of molecular microbiology and the key focus areas of future research include Microbiome; AMR with particular focus on non-model pathogens; Nano body engineering; Precision fermentation and; Bioremediation.

“Over the years, India has been backing R&D across scientific institutions and universities”

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What have been your priorities for the institute after joining as the Director two and half years ago? 
I took over as Director of CSIR-IMTECH in March 2020, at a time when SARS-COV2 virus had just started spreading its tentacles in India. IMTECH played a pivotal role in mitigating COVID-19 challenges not just by providing infrastructure for COVID-specific projects and COVID RT-PCR testing, but we also initiated work on COVID-19 vaccines and helped the academia & the industries by testing anti-viral efficacy of their compounds and products. We also imparted training to neighbouring hospitals and laboratories to ramp up COVID testing capabilities.
Today, apart from the COVID-19 activities, our priorities include building capacity in microbial genomics and metagenomics, focused research   in the niche area of Microbiome biology, developing animal and 3D culture models for infectious disease research, providing microbial consortia for the bioremediation of waste including plastics. In a nutshell, our key focus includes various facets of microbiology which would guide our future research.
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How has been your experience in terms of working with the industry? Any latest technologies transferred by IMTECH to the private sector?
CSIR-IMTECH has always believed in a proactive approach to identify specific needs of the industry in research areas that are part of the institute’s mandate. The Institute has signed deals worth Rs. 30 crore with more than 40 industries in the last few years and we plan to continuously engage with industries for various R&D projects encompassing Tech Transfer, Technical Services and Consultancy, in both sponsored and collaborative mode.
A few good examples of our recent efforts are, a collaboration with Merck, a first of its kind of a public private partnership in a CSIR lab for setting up of Knowledge Alliance in a collaborative mode. Collaboration with Zydus Cadila for anti TB drugs, is another example that has met with success under this model. Our ever-increasing portfolio of patents also provides us the impetus in our industry connect.
Timeliness is yet another hallmark of our business development strategy that we have leveraged effectively for engagement with the industry. During the pandemic, IMTECH virology team helped more than two dozen industries for testing of anti-viral efficacy of their products by developing highly customized assays and handholding the industry so that they could help the society at large in mitigating the effects of the deadly virus. It was largely our efforts due to which most of these industrial partners were able to launch their products in the market.
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What role did IMTECH play during Covid-19? Your mantra for sustaining the R&D momentum achieved during the pandemic? 
During the COVID pandemic, CSIR-IMTECH was a key force in providing infrastructure and training for RT-PCR testing, led a national anti-SARS-CoV-2 drug discovery initiative and collaborated in a multi-disciplinary study on air testing for SARS-CoV-2. The latter culminated in the installation of the UV-C based air purification device in multiple buildings including Lok Sabha.
IMTECH played a pivotal role in mitigating COVID-19 challenges not just by providing infrastructure for COVID-specific projects and COVID RT-PCR testing, but also initiated work on COVID-19 vaccines. We imparted training to neighbouring hospitals and laboratories to ramp up COVID testing capabilities and helped the academia & the industries in antiviral efficacy testing for their compounds and products.
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Please tell us about your major national and international collaborations. What has been the outcome? 
Apart from collaborations of IMTECH scientists at individual level with their counterparts, we have signed Memorandum of Understanding for definite outcomes with more than 30 institutions in the last 5 years ranging from IITs to NIPER to reputed universities; and from start-ups to well established players in the industry.
Interdisciplinary collaboration has been the key for us to produce successful outcomes and to leverage our core competency. For example, collaboration with an institution like Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) ISRO to provide them with appropriate bioremediation solutions. Collaboration with our sister laboratory CSIO for developing UV-C Disinfection Systems for Indoor spaces and which is installed in our Lok Sabha and Central Hall in New Delhi during the COVID pandemic was another endeavour which reflects our interdisciplinary collaboration.
In the last few years, our scientists have collaborated with many international Institutes of repute including Institute of Innovative Research (IIR), Tokyo, Japan, University of Durham, England and Aarhus University, Denmark, for various aspects of molecular biology. The objectives of these collaborations range from understanding basic cellular responses to working on communicable and noncommunicable diseases.

“During the pandemic, the IMTECH virology team helped more than two dozen industries for testing of anti-viral efficacy of their products”

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Antibiotic resistance is emerging as a huge challenge. How can institutes such as IMTECH play a role in developing solutions to address it?
Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR), one of the most serious public health concerns largely contributes to a high-level morbidity world-wide, and if left unattended, this slow, almost invisible pandemic could be the next giant killer. Therefore, finding effective solutions to combat and eradicate the critical threat of AMR is a dire need of the present days. While we recognize that AMR is a multifaceted challenge, focus must be directed to multiple dimensions including basic research to help decipher nitty-gritties of deeper biology of clinically significant microorganisms and develop areas to find adequate technological solutions to tackle the problem hitting across borders and continents.
The research team in CSIR-IMTECH has been working on this concept with a precise focus on red alert pathogens with unmet solutions, primarily representing bacterial species such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb) and ESKAPE pathogens. Fungal and parasite pathogens are also on our radar. The team has subject-wise strengths, diverse expertise and enriched experience in various disciplines of molecular microbiology, structural biology, cellular immunology, bioinformatics and knowledge base to exploit cutting-edge technological advances utilizing different OMICs approaches to address the problem of antibiotic resistance. We have established novel screens, innovative models, diagnostic strategies and robust platforms to understand biology of the pathogens starting from understanding the molecular mechanisms of resistance, identifying specific drug targets and characterizing these in relation to disease pathogenesis leading to preclinical validation of drug discovery. Importantly, CSIR-IMTECH houses a Microbial Culture Collection facility which is recognised by the International Depositary Authority (IDA). MTCC also has a defined repository of clinical strains available to provide invaluable resources to AMR researchers. The team of Scientists continue to work on versatile strategies with a single convergent objective to tackle and find effective biological solutions to this alarming global challenge of AMR.

*The above interview was first featured in ‘Dec 2022 edition’ of BioVoice e-Magazine.