Cutting-edge lab for research on biotechnology, drug discovery comes up in Vizag

Visakhapatnam (AP): A state-of-the-art laboratory for conducting “groundbreaking research” in areas such as biotechnology, material sciences and cancer biology has come up in a leading academic campus in Andhra Pradesh’s Visakhapatnam.

Christened ‘Multidisciplinary Unit of Research on Translational Initiatives’ (MURTI), the research infrastructure is housed in the campus of GITAM (deemed to be university) here. S Chandrasekhar, secretary, Department of Science and Technology (Ministry of Science and Technology) had on Saturday inaugurated the second phase of MURTI, and said such an ecosystem would enable start-ups, while suggesting that GITAM could allow the lab to be used by local universities and institutions for a nominal fee.

Interacting with PTI here after opening the lab, located in the ground floor of the department of pharmacy, he also shared that in the last three months, about “150-200 applications have been received under the SATHI scheme”.

Under DST’s SATHI (Sophisticated Analytical and Technical Help Institute) shared and professionally managed, science and technology infrastructure facility can be set up to be readily made accessible to academia, start-ups, manufacturing units, industries, and research and development (R&D) labs.

He said the Centre encourages private universities to apply for SATHI programme (through consortium call) so that one could create such facilities for the local ecosystem, and also encourage private industries as to put some money in it.

“The government has limited labs. We have about 1,000 labs, national institutes and central institutes, but these do not cater to all researchers. Today, we are happy that GITAM has taken the initiative to build best of the analytical facilities,” Chandrasekhar, who ia also a reputed scientist, said.

MURTI is equipped with state-of-the-art instruments, including four sophisticated equipment — liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry (LCMS), high resolution mass spectrometry (HSMS), scanning electron microscope (SEM), and 500 MHz NMR — said Raja P Pappu, director (research and development), GITAM.

The first phase of MURTI was inaugurated in February this year where R&D work will take place in the fields of biotechnology, microbiology, food science and technology, chemistry, physics, environmental sciences and engineering.

MURTI will focus on research in clusters, including cancer biology, material sciences, infectious biology, environmental and atmospheric sciences, chemical ecology, infectious biology, drug discovery, and computational linguistics, a spokesperson of GITAM said.

The launch of MURTI coincides with GITAM’s sizable investment of Rs 45 crore for the financial year 2022-23, with plans to set up MURTI centres across two other campuses — in Hyderabad and Bengaluru — as well to boost research culture.

The Gandhi Institute of Technology and Management (GITAM), named after Mahatma Gandhi, began its journey as an engineering institute in 1980 in Visakhapatnam. It was established by M V V S Murti, a philanthropist, Gandhian and former Lok Sabha member.

The name of the laboratory is a tribute to the institution’s founder who died in 2018.

“In addition to conducting groundbreaking research, MURTI will be pivotal in drug discovery. One of the other key projects at MURTI is the development of machine translation tools for some of the indigenous tribal languages of this region,” the spokesperson said.

DST secretary Chandrasekhar, when asked how can such labs benefit society and the scientific and research community at large, said, “If some private university has spent that much money, now we also encourage this and that local universities like Andhra University, small colleges in and around, JNTU (Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University), Kakinada — they all could come and use this facility against a small fee.”

Terming the opening of the lab a “good move”, he said the central government
believes that this ecosystem will “enable a few start-ups to come here because of infrastructure”.

So, automatically a start-up culture will come up, and especially GITAM has a large number of engineering students, the top official in the Ministry of Science and Technology underlined.

Asked how such an ecosystem can feed into the vision of Atmanirbhar Bharat, the DST secretary said, today, the Government of India has opened up the entire geospatial policy, now ISRO is open, space is open, private players are coming in.

“So, these are all the moves towards making India ‘atmanirbhar’ and we see that youngesters, instead of becoming job-seekers, become job-creators,” he said.

On molecule biology research front in India, he also cited examples of the country’s growing capabilities in manufacturing diagnostic kits, more so after the COVID-19 outbreak, and of IIT-Kanpur building a medical college within the campus.

Engineers and doctors are co-existing. So that you can use engineering and medical capabilities together, and India can catch up on biologics, which is going to be a big thing for India in future, the official added.

The two labs at GITAM in its sprawling over a 100-acre campus in Visakhapatnam is likely to attract researchers and innovators from outside the institution as well.

Chandrshekhar said GITAM cannot use all of this everyday. It should also open this to other players. Industrial area, they do not want to duplicate the same equipment. So, people in industry can use it, besides those from academia, he said.

On DST’s ‘Inspire’ programmes, the secretary said this is a programme to bring bright minds into science. Those with liking for science, and who should not “drift into IT and night-shift jobs”, he said.

“These programmes, we are doing to tap the best talent so that they not just go to civil services, engineering or medical fields, but they do come to science,” he added.