Friday, 27 September 2013

Engineer wins Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award for creating synthetic bone

Engineer wins Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award for creating synthetic bone
There is a new bone in contention only it is a synthetic one.

This synthetic bone is the work of Bikramjit Basu, a 40-year-old scientist who studied metallurgy (now called materials science) and is one of the eight recipients of India's very own Nobel Prize for young scientists-the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Awards, 2013.

He has won the award in 'engineering sciences' but his research promises to take care of the common man's health woes. In a country where 50 per cent of the population faces risk of some sort of bone disease, Basu has come up with a lab-grown bone.
Bikramjit Basu is a 40-year-old scientist who studied metallurgy.

That's the way of 21st century science, where cutting-edge research in biosciences is happening through engineers, physicists and chemists. "That's because, we ask different questions and pursue different methods, that biologists do not ask or are not interested in," says Basu, associate professor of materials research center at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

New research in the medical sciences is also marked by a materials rush. Biomaterials, from nature or grown in the lab, are substances that are being 'mashed' with biological systems, supplementing or replacing natural functions. The 50-year-old science has grown so much that the materials are now being used every day in surgical procedures and drug delivery.

"Natural bone consists of collagen and something called hydroxyapatite," says Basu. Collagen is a protein that gives bone its resilience, while hydroxyapatite-the source of bone calcium-provides strength and rigidity. For the last four-five years, Basu and his team-first at IIT-Kanpur and then at IISc-has been working on developing an 'implantable biomaterial' that would regenerate bones. "We needed to create something that would have electrical property, biological compatibility, strength and toughness to resist fractures."

His engineering skills came into play: measuring a material's ability to conduct electric current is essentially an engineer's approach. But the problem in hand was fundamentally biological: "Cells in the body communicate with each other by sending and receiving signals," he adds. Signals, from outside the body or from other cells, are passed on though electrical impulse. In a unique experiment in his lab Basu showed that when electrical current was sent in, his bone implants allowed cells to "crosstalk" and grow.

The science has enormous healthcare implications. It simply means better treatment and healing for bone injuries: it can be fixed onto bones, be shaped to fit voids or chips, be absorbed by the body eventually to re-grow new bones.

Question is: when will it reach the common man? "For lab-grown systems to work in the body, there are many more steps that need to be taken, including clinical trials," he says. For that clinicians and engineers need to work very closely. "But in our country such work rarely takes place. Everybody works in isolation. And scientific research does not get translated into application." This is where the West beats the developing world. During his research at University of Leuven in Belgium as well as University of California, Santa Barbara, US, this is what he saw: "Most top universities have a hospital and a host of research labs work in collaboration with it. The work gets translated seamlessly, from lab bench-side to hospital bedside."

For now, such awards bring visibility to the field and to our world-class researchers. For Basu's father, who could never pursue his academic dreams and worked in the railways to hold his family together in the wake of Partition, this is a dream come true. The nation, however, has to walk many more miles before the synergy of science and clinical application can join hands to reach the common man.

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