Part - III
In previous articles I have described some of the amazing developments that are occurring in the field of biological sciences. These include the blind being able to see with their tongue and being able to move objects by thought control, the understanding of genetics in order to tackle genetic diseases, and repairing damaged heart, kidney or other organs using stem cells.
Genetics is already finding many applications in agriculture. The global population is increasing rapidly and is expected to cross nine billion by 2050. As the cultivable area on our planet is limited, with increasing global warming we will experience severe water shortages. The affects of the resulting droughts could be devastating. Pakistan is going to be among the worst affected countries as a result of these changes. There is, therefore, an urgent need for science to find answers to this potential calamity that hovers ahead.
The fantastic advances that have occurred in the field of genetics hold out hope regarding how we may address such problems. Genetically engineered crops are being developed, which offer better nutritional properties, afford much higher yields, are resistant to pests, and can survive under stressed conditions. These include fungus-resistant bananas, virus-resistant sweet potatoes, insect-resistant cowpeas, high-yielding pearl millet and drought tolerant cassava. The Jamilur Rahman Centre for Genomics Research, named after my father and built from a personal donation from me to Karachi University, will work in the field of biosaline agriculture so that we can grow crops using saline/sea water.
The genetically engineered ‘golden rice’ being cultivated in the Philippines contains provitamin A, and its use can save the lives of hundreds of thousands of children that suffer from Vitamin A deficiency. Virus resistant cotton, papaya and many other plants have been developed that are in commercial use.
Many people are apprehensive of health hazards if genetically modified crops are used, but if one develops and uses indigenous technology (not supplied by foreign companies in which there is a serious risk of becoming dependent on foreign supply of seeds) and as long as safety regulations have been properly applied, GM crops can give a huge boost to agricultural productivity. There is not a single reported case of death or serious illness caused by GM foods.
One problem with agricultural production is that most crops are seasonal. This is because there are certain underlying chemical mechanisms that control the time when the plants should flower, so that insects may be attracted for propagation. Scientists have been trying to understand how these functions are regulated, and the genes responsible for the process.
Now Xing Wang Deng, the Daniel C Eaton professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at Yale, and colleagues have discovered the precise gene (DET1) responsible for regulating these functions in plants. By controlling these biological clocks that nature has built into plants, it has now become possible to obtain crops throughout the year, instead of only having them in certain seasons.
Genetic manipulations are not confined to the plant kingdom but are also finding many uses in animals too. Gene therapy is beginning to find important applications in medicine and a whole new world of discovery lies ahead. An exciting discovery has been to employ genetic modifications in breast cancer. A problem in cancer is to identify the exact area that is affected by the disease and to have the cancer cells show up clearly.
In this connection, Prof David Kaplan and colleagues at Tufts University have succeeded in modifying spider silk proteins and combining them with firefly proteins (the same protein that glows in the dark in fireflies making them shine) in order to develop an exciting new gene therapy against breast cancer. The genetically modified proteins can attach themselves selectively to cancer cells in breast cancer patients, and the resulting glow produced by them allows the ready identification of the diseased cancerous regions.
Scientists in many laboratories have also been looking at ways to slow down the ageing process, or indeed to reverse it by simply switching off some genes that contribute to the ageing process, making us younger! In another incredible development Australian and US researchers have discovered an anti-ageing compound that reversed the ageing process in mice. Clinical trials on humans will start soon.
Researchers at Harvard University and the University of NSW, discovered a way of reversing the ageing process in muscles. When two-year-old mice were given the compound (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, or NAD) to mice for a week, it modified the basic biological indicators, radically reversing the ageing process, so that they corresponded to those of six-month-old mice. This is equivalent to making a 60-year-old person feel like a 20-year-old. This compound is present in the body naturally but declines with age. The scientists hope that the age reversal process can be used to treat diseases such as cancer, dementia and diabetes.
In another interesting development, scientists at McMaster University in Canada and the University of Tubingen in Germany have determined the sequence of the entire genome of the bacteria that caused the plague (Yersinia pestis). About a quarter of the human population on our planet was wiped out by plague – known as the ‘Black Death’ – during 1330 to 1347.
It is believed to have originated in the northern part of Asia in 1330s and reached Europe in the 1940s, killing about 75 million people worldwide. About 2,000 people still die every year from this disease and an understanding of the genetic structure of the original plague virus can help develop a cure for this scourge.
The rapid advances in genome sequencing technologies are opening up a whole new era of medicine that will allow diseases to be tackled with greater accuracy. The understanding of the genetic structures of microorganisms is helping to gain a better understanding of the weak points in the organisms that can be useful in drug design. Similarly, the advances in sequencing of the human genome are leading to a greater understanding of the genetic causes of many human diseases.
A whole new area of ‘personalised medicine’ is under rapid development that should allow drugs to be tailored according to the individual genetic makeup of different groups of populations.
Pakistan too started making rapid progress in various biological sciences with massive research support from the Higher Education Commission after its formation in 2002. However, the programmes received a major setback when a group of 200 parliamentarians with forged degrees did their utmost to destroy it. Fortunately the HEC has survived, largely to my two petitions before the Supreme Court of Pakistan and the support that the organisation received from the PML-N. The nation should be thankful to PM Nawaz Sharif who strongly supported my stand regarding the autonomy of HEC and made it a part of the manifesto of the PML-N. We need to continue on the path of strengthening our universities if Pakistan is to emerge with a strong knowledge economy and tackle poverty, terrorism and socioeconomic development.
The writer is the president of the Pakistan Academy of Sciences and former chairman of the HEC.
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