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Indian scientist who developed rotavirus vaccine passes away

Eminent Indian paediatrician and clinician scientist Maharaj Kishan Bhan, known for developing a rotavirus vaccine and as a former chief of the country's Department of Biotechnology (DBT), passed away in New Delhi today (26 January 2020). He was 72.

Born in 1947, the year India attained Independence, he breathed his last as the country was celebrating its 71 st Republic Day. In a way, he was destined to be part of the country's history, both in life and and in death.

Good leaders inspire and are remembered long after they move away from the corridors of power. According to John C Maxwell, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way”. Maharaj Kishan Bhan was all of those things.

After a medical degree from the Armed Forces Medical College in Pune, Bhan pursued an MD (paediatrics) from the Postgraduate Institute for Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh. As a faculty at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi he researched childhood diarrhea and nutrition, which became his lifelong passion. The work led to an understanding of the role of micronutrients, especially zinc, and the development of India’s first indigenous vaccine – that for rotavirus.

Vaccine researchers often joke that it’s a safe field to be in. The process of vaccine development, trials and licensing is so tedious and long drawn that by the time a vaccine fails trials, the researcher has most certainly retired or is possibly dead.

But Bhan was different. He made the fortuitous discovery at AIIMS of an attenuated (weakened) strain of rotavirus from an Indian child and was smart enough to recognise it as the basis for a future vaccine. He persevered, built teams, developed structures and guided the vaccine through a nascent regulatory process. The resultant vaccine Rotavac was licensed for use in India in 2014.

The story of Rotavac and Bhan is also the story of developing policies and institutions. Being a firm believer in collaboration, translation of laboratory research and public-private partnerships, Bhan started many new initiatives as the DBT secretary between 2005 and 2012. Among them is the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute (THSTI), which has centres dedicated to vaccines and infectious diseases, paediatric biology, biodesign and drug development.

THSTI was conceived as the heart of a bio-cluster in the national capital region with a policy development centre and one for teaching and international cooperation. His idea was to link this to existing institutions such as AIIMS, the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biology and the National Institute of Plant Genome Research. Turning this into reality would be a real tribute to him.

Another fine legacy Bhan leaves behind is BIRAC – the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council – which brings academia and industry together. Bhan used to say that India needs enormous capacity for advance innovation and recognised how the global biotechnology enterprise has its roots in academic research.

I first met Bhan on an Indian delegation to Moscow (Russia) in the late 1990s. Apart from his clarity of ideas, superb articulation and the ability to engage, I remember his unfazed focus on work through an incident I'll never forget. The Aeroflot flight we were taking was terrible, his seat was wet, and a couple of towels had to be used so he could sit on it during take-off and landing. He and I spent the entire flight from Moscow to Delhi standing by our seats and talking, the conversation centred not on the wet seat but on ideas, research and science.

In 2009 Bhan constituted an expert committee to suggest changes in DBT’s extramural funding and asked me to chair it. Later he sent me a heartfelt “thank you” note, the only such I have ever received for serving on a committee.

The DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance, which I now head, also owes its existence to Bhan. Bhan and Mark Wolport, then Director of The Wellcome Trust, agreed to co-fund India Alliance sitting in a pub. Audacity, aided by chemicals, sometimes catapults ideas that might otherwise be too crazy to consider. Bhan continued to be interested in the work of the India Alliance till the end and was always generous with his time. Based on his advice we started a partnership with the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) to co-fund meetings in nascent research areas, and he happily chaired the selection committee.

His friends called him “Raj” Bhan but for me he was always Dr. Bhan, a revered figure full of advice, appreciation and positive energy. At our last meeting in November 2019, reeling under the effects of chemotherapy, he was still generously giving us positive advise. It was this spirit that endeared him to many in the scientific research and administration community.

Once a retired senior bureaucrat and a close friend ran into Bhan at AIIMS. "Whenever I hear of the rotavirus, I think of you," the bureaucrat said. In his characteristic self-deprecation, Bhan guffawed, “Rightly so. I owe much my professional growth to it”.

In Bhan's death, India's scientific community has lost not just a visionary leader but also an unassuming, good person.

[*Chief Executive Officer, DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance.]


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