The End of an Era! A tribute to former DBT Secretary, Dr M K Bhan

Born on November 9, 1947 in Kashmir, Dr Maharaj K Bhan came a long way to be recognized as one of the top faces of Indian biotechnology sector, both as a scientist and an administrator

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New Delhi: It was 7:30 pm in the evening and I was patiently waiting in the office of Dr MK Bhan at the Department of Biotechnology in CGO Complex-New Delhi. The court case related to a genetically modified variety of Brinjal (Bt Brinjal) was scheduled for hearing the next day and therefore, there was a lot of activity happening at that hour too. Finally, I met Dr Bhan at around 8 pm to get a quote for a story. As a young reporter, I was listening carefully to what Dr Bhan was telling me. Perhaps his persona would make you listen to his wise words with awe.

Years later, I met him at his home for an interview and this time, I got schooled for asking him a wrong question. Do the in-depth stories, he would say. Again in Bengaluru, I got an opportunity to receive him at the airport for an event and then travel with him in the car. I got to know him a bit more in that 1 and half-hour-long conversation. He was much inclined and dedicated towards making India’s research ecosystem stronger. He wanted to see Indian scientists leaving a mark across world.

Popularly known as Raj Bhan by his friends, Dr Bhan was an inspiring leader who has brought a fresh approach to the way of doing science and handling bureaucracy. His outstanding work as an eminent pediatrician and clinical scientist has created an everlasting impact. His research in the area of diarrhoeal diseases and child nutrition is globally recognized.

Dr Bhan has been the brain behind a rotavirus vaccine, which has not only created a new paradigm on health and international interaction but also put India on path of novel vaccine development. More importantly, his administrative capabilities made the DBT among only few government agencies to be recognized for efficient work. Dr Bhan can be credited for championing programs like Biotechnology Industry Partnership Program (BIPP) and Small Business Industry Research Initiative (SBIRI) to help foster innovation and promote the industry. His execution of the idea and mentorship to the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), has been very well appreciated by the industry. He has played a unique role to open up the government support and involvement for the Indian entrepreneurs to add on biomedical capacities, new diagnostics tools, affordable agricultural techniques among other various things. Scaling up of existing technologies through collaborations within the industry and also academia too is highly relevant for the sector to make an impact on the society in the long run and Dr Bhan has been the biggest advocate of this. He has also promoted bioclusters as an approach for deeper scientific and business collaboration.

Born on November 9, 1947 in Kashmir, Dr Bhan went on to later become a doctor. His formal education started at the local mission school in Srinagar, followed by college in Pune and Delhi. Dr Bhan never had patience for classroom learning but there were several teachers who left a tremendous influence on his life.

After obtaining his MBBS in the year 1969 from the Armed Forces Medical College, Pune, he went on to do his MD in 1974 from the Delhi University. His areas of specialization included pediatric gastroenterology, pediatric infectious diseases and nutrition. On choosing the medical profession, Dr Bhan says that his love for children was always an inspiration. “Those days there was choice for medical and engineering, I made sure that I was eligible for both but eventually my heart won. The desire to have abstract scholarship versus the desire to serve the needy. Eventually the heart won and he went ahead to study medicine and became a pediatrician.

Outstanding career

Dr Bhan held the positions of the registrar at the Safdarjung Hospital, New Delhi between 1974-76. senior consultant at the Institute of Child Health, Kabul, Afghanistan from 1976-78. He then served as a lecturer at the Post-graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh. From 1978-79, he joined All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi as an assistant professor between 1979-81; associate professor between 1981-87 and additional professor from 1987 onwards. His days at AIIMS became highly enriched with experiences of handling children with diarrhoeal symptoms. That was the time, when he discovered a neonatal strain of rotavirus, which later has transformed into India’s first indigenous affordable rotavirus vaccine.

After he took charge as the secretary of DBT in 2004, he in his decade long stint brought in new thinking and dynamism to the area of biotechnology. His contribution towards evolving a transparent biotech policy and regulatory regime is a fact that every biotech player in the country is proud of. Under his guidance, special attention was given to forge enduring alliances with a few well chosen countries that lead in innovation and discovery and complement India’s strength in biotechnology. He was all for a big expansion of the scientist pool and science activity in industry (small, medium, and large) and through government labs and a smooth flow of ideas, people and knowledge. The purpose of the strategy was to head towards innovation and produce novel products,while capitalizing on the current opportunities in clinical research and biosimilars.

Dr Bhan has also made major intellectual contribution toward the concept and content development of several major programs of DBT, including, National Biotechnology Development Strategy, National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority, Translational Health Science and Technology Institute in Faridabad. All these initiatives have been aimed at making industry more mature and expand its presence in the country. Currently the development of three clusters at Mohali, Faridabad and Bangalore is underway. Redesigning the strategy consistently is very important for the industry, academia and policymakers to sustain the industry and Dr Bhan was a leader who facilitated all this.

Dr Bhan felt that innovation dependent sector such as biotech cannot thrive well without an enabling ecosystem. “To sustain the momentum, we need deep pocket science. Particularly, the disease biology and end mechanism. Unless you replicate new targets, drug development is not going to be an easy task,” he said.

Once asked about the dearth of research aptitude in doctors, Dr Bhan had told me that the question is not about aptitude but the lack of opportunities available to doctors for career path through education and research. “Only 1 percent to 2 percent of medical professionals are actually able to turn into researchers. Lets start training the new breed of technologists and make them fit for acquiring knowledge.”

Our rich tributes to India’s excellent scientist, outstanding administrator and above all the great soul and a humanitarian. Rest in heavens Dr Bhan.