“Plant based medicines are gaining relevance”

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Dr Dilip Kumar Upreti, Chief Scientist, CSIR-National Botanical Research Institute, Lucknow. is also serving as president of Indian Lichenological Society. During this tenure as Scientist and Head of Lichen Lab at CSIR-NBRI, he published more than 60 research articles (including book chapters) and also revised the lichen families.

Recently the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research Technological Awards 2016 recognized the efforts, hard work and efficiency of the scientists at various CSIR laboratories. Scientists of CSIR-National Botanical Research Institute (NBRI), who jointly developed the anti-diabetic product BGR-34, were recently awarded by the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi for their exclusive contribution in restoring the societal health. In that context, the Chat with Biovoice features an exclusive interaction with Dr Dilip Kumar Upreti, Chief Scientist & Acting Director, CSIR-NBRI who shared interesting insights on the relevance of phytopharma products, growing acceptance of medicinal plant based drugs and much more. 

BV_icon_finalPlease tell us about the CSIR and in particular, the NBRI’s relevance in context of plant based research and product outcomes?

The CSIR as we know has got 37 laboratories across India. Each laboratory is working on various scientific areas that are relevant to its mandate. At the same time these different research institutes are working on multiple aspects of research and development from basic to the translational one. NBRI in particular is a premier institute dedicated to the plant science. Its primary objective is to conduct basic and applied research on plant diversity and prospection, plant-environment interaction and biotechnological approaches for plant improvement. Its major work area also includes the development of technologies for new plant and microbial sources of commercial importance.

Not only in India but nowhere in world, you will find so many plant experts at one place. There are experts working on both flower bearing plants as well as non-flower bearing plants. It is complimented or supplemented by cutting edge science including biotechnology, environment sciences including pollution and climatic change. As an institute, we promote direct association with farmers. If we develop some plant varieties, it should go to the field. CSIR institutes that have been working on various plants of importance, have developed varieties for better yield and given to them to farmers for better prospects.

BV_icon_finalWhat kind of farmer driven technologies have been commercialized by your institute?

We are very much involved in horticulture and floriculture research and developed many varieties. We have built the extensive germplasm repository of plants of indigenous and exotic origin, including rare, endangered and threatened species. Recently we have developed a new variety of Bouaginvillea which was named “APJ Abdul Kalam”, dedicated to Late President Dr Abdul Kalam by CSIR-NBRI.

BV_icon_finalAny example of a technology in particular related to health that has benefited farmers as well?

In the eastern parts of country particularly in West Bengal, we have the problem of arsenic. The contamination through the flow of this arsenic into plants and vegetables, leads to hazardous effects on health. We have developed the rice plant variety in coordination with the Department of Agriculture, Government of West Bengal. It is already released commercially and named as Mukhtashri’’. In this low grade arsenic variety, the rice grains are not affected. We have developed this technology in our laboratory and disseminated it in a widespread way.

“The popularity of this drug is immense and surely perceptions are changing. Besides that, it can be taken along with allopathy medicines for diabetes. Particularly the beginners in age group of 40-45 years who are prone to diabetes can use this.”

BV_icon_finalPlease tell us about BGR-34 and its edge over other such drugs in market?

It is a combination of six different herbs. Our phytochemistry lab has developed this drug jointly with the CIMAP researchers. The scientist namely Dr Chandra Shekhar Nautiyal, Dr A K S Rawat, Senior Principal Scientist, Former Director CSIR-NBRI, Dr Ch V Rao Principal Scientist and Dr Sanjeev Kumar Ojha were involved in the project.

The formulation [NBRMAP-DB] from six known herbs was developed by NBRI and that patent was held by us.  AMIL Pharma has come up with BGR-34 which means Blood Glucose Reductant due to which 34 parts of system get benefitted. They are working on efficacy improvement. The value addition has been done by them but it is their trade secret.

We have a thousands of Ayurvedic medicines for diabetes already there but the combination of ingredients and product efficacy matters. The target is Rs 100 crore market which is already growing.

BV_icon_finalHas the perception about the Ayurvedic formulations changed with the introduction of the BGR-34?

See the popularity of this drug is immense and it can be taken along with allopathy medicines for diabetes. Particularly the beginners in age group of 40-45 years who are prone to diabetes can use this. It would be helpful. It has been distributed across India due to the response it has received. One of the groups working on the formulation has done an outstanding job and thus has helped. While there are many drugs in the market to control diabetes, this one has got specificity.

As far as perceptions are concerned, these are changing. The plant based medicines are becoming highly relevant due to lesser or no side effects at all.

BV_icon_finalDoes NBRI have enough fund allocation for its research activities?

We have enough funds. There is need for devotion to research nothing else.

BV_icon_finalYou earlier mentioned that your institute has developed resistant variety of Bt Cotton? Please elaborate?

One of our developed a transgenic variety of cotton in view of white fly problem mostly in northern India. It is white fly resistant cotton. The gene introduced from a resistant plant into cotton plant helped us to develop this variety. We are on our way to sign the agreement with Punjab Agriculture University and we are going to multiply it and introduce the plants for field trials.

BV_icon_finalWhich are the other important disease areas where research to develop drugs is being conducted?

Our scientists are working on plant based solutions for Urolithiasis where the kidney stones are in the process of development or nephrolethiois in which stones are small, hard mineral deposits that form inside your kidneys. Besides that, we are working on various nutritional foods as well. We take leads from the various literature in Ayurveda based on whatever targets are given to us by the government. Our mission is to provide solutions to various lifestyle and other diseases affecting the large populations in India.

BV_icon_finalPhytopharma regulations are yet to be defined. How do you look at it?

As you are aware that GMOs are also not yet approved in India and the regulatory process is still in progress. Similarly, I am sure that the technology will evolve and the regulations in phytopharma will be ensured. Various technologies in CSIR institutes are under incubation and it will be a big sector in coming times.

BV_icon_finalHow does the CSIR institutes working on plants choose their varieties? Any major factors?

India has got vast landscape rich in natural resources. On one side, we have Himalayas and other side deserts. There are areas with vast sea too. So, the regional climate and landscape determine the presence of plant species. We have so many research institutes in India. PM Modi has released few varieties for South India. There are various plant varieties being worked upon at the Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technology in Himachal Pradesh even the ones from Lahaul Spiti area. Similarly, the institutes working in some other part will focus on the plant varieties relevant to its coverage.

“In the eastern parts of country particularly in West Bengal, we have the problem of arsenic. The contamination through the flow of this arsenic into plants and vegetables, leads to hazardous effects on health. We have developed the rice plant variety in coordination with the Department of Agriculture, Government of West Bengal.”

BV_icon_finalCSIR has completed 75 years. What are your feelings on this achievement vis a vis its role in promoting traditional therapies?

India is rich in unique traditional medicines. We have cultural heritages and folklore with so many remedies. There is lot of scope to explore the new medicinal plants which perhaps have been already discovered in long past but remain unknown to the new generations. If you see, the CSIR has got tremendous knowledge in its store. The CSIR’s Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) is filled with so much information on ethnic knowledge on medicinal herbs.

There are three major pillars of CSIR: Physical, Chemical and Biological. All these areas are highly relevant to India. I believe this is the time to do the translational research in all the areas. We have to go for the paradigm shift in our approach.

BV_icon_finalHave the CSIR’s research outcomes not been publicized in the past they should have been?

When we started in 60’s, we discovered the ink used in elections and also the baby food. We started early but perhaps the exposure was less. The research used to be confined within laboratory walls. Now in the era of whatsapp, things of course have changed. The advent of electronic media has brought the relevance of science to the doorsteps of common man, which is good.

The Janaki Ammal National Award in Plant Taxonomy for the year 2015 was given to Dr Dalip Kumar Upreti by Mr Prakash Javadekar, Minister of Environment and Forests, for his work over the last three decades, leading to the establishment of more than 100 new species of lichen to the world and more than 200 species as new records to the lichen.