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Women scientists for women’s welfare

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Two women scientists — Dr Renu Swarup, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology, and Chairperson, BIRAC and Dr Gagandeep Kang, Executive Director, Translational Health Science and Technology Institute have contributed much to women’s well-being. Let’s have a look

By Akanki Sharma

In India, women generally tend to ignore their health and don’t go for a treatment unless their problems bring them to worst. However, there are some women scientists who have been working  on resolving these problems for years. Talking about the various initiatives the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) has taken for ensuring women’s good health, Dr Renu Swarup, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology, and Chairperson, BIRAC advises women to stay stress-free.

Also, elaborating on the projects DBT has come up with that focus specifically on women’s health in India, she informs, “Maternal and child health is a priority for us and we have a large number of programmes, both at DBT and our public sector BIRAC. The emphasis is at providing affordable healthcare intervention, doing early diagnosis of diseases and finding preventive cure.

“Of late, we have launched a programme — the Atal JaiAnusandhan Biotech Mission under which we have GARBH-ini. In this, we are doing a cohort study on pre-term birth, wherein more than 8,000 pregnant women’s samples will be collected to study the parameters for pre-term birth, its side effects and an early diagnosis. For this, we are bringing a genomics technology that can bring in predictive markers, so that pre-term birth can be predicted early and actions can be taken to either prevent it or see how we can bring in the intervention into it. We have also set up one of the largest biorepositories which will have the samples collected and linked with genomics data. In addition to it, we have tied up with IIT Madras for bringing in artificial intelligence to develop these predictive markers. A study has been launched in southern India, which is looking at a similar angle — what are the interventions or what is the growth pattern for pregnant women, what are the interventions that are going to their diet and how a child is being tracked for about two years of age after he/she is born,” she further adds.

The DBT initiatives
According to Dr Swarup, a similar study is being conducted in Delhi too, which is about bringing in improved nutritional intervention to see its impact on pregnancy, childbirth and the child growth till two years of age. With breast cancer and cervical cancer being some of the major diseases women are diagnosed with, she informs that her department is working on different diagnostics screening devices, both for breast cancer and cervical cancer and some of these are in advanced stages of development. “For breast cancer, there is thermal image device system, which is with AI tool that looks at the heat map and takes a normal image, so that we can do a protective marking. For cervical cancer, we have a large number of screening devices which are being worked out. Apart from it, we are also supporting a major programme on developing an indigenous HPV vaccine for cervical cancer. Currently, we are using the imported vaccine in one or two states where it has got in but we are supporting one of our Indian manufacturers to come up with the HPV vaccine under our Grand Challenges initiative,” she says.

With menstrual hygiene being one of the common and important factors in a woman’s life, many steps are being taken in this regard too. Dr Swarup, while sharing more details on this, says, “Looking at greener technologies, one of the startups is looking at the way of disposal of sanitary napkins. Recently, we have also awarded one of the startups namely Padcare Labs under our Soch grant. The company is developing a minimum viable product for rapid, easy, economical and eco-friendly sanitary pad sterilisation, partial segregation and disposal at waste-generation level which overcomes issues of smell, unhygienic environment, and unsafe handling.”

As a working woman, Dr Swarup does much to keep herself healthy. However, she wishes to do more. “I try to factor in at least 60 minutes of workout schedule either by walking and exercises or yoga. Also, I try to maintain a diet as healthy as possible, whether I am in office or somewhere out. I also try to ensure that I get healthy food from home. That’s the maximum I do but I wish I could go beyond it. And, the most important thing is to get a regular check up, so that in case something is not right, I can take an immediate action on it,” she shares.

  • You must ensure that you bring in proper diet in your plan.
  • You need to factor in proper workout schedule for yourself.
  • You need to keep yourself totally relaxed with no stress on your mind.

Women are always late
Executive Director of Faridabad-based Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, Dr Gagandeep Kang feels that women scientists in most places tend to be invisible, partly because they are culturally conditioned not to put themselves forward. But, saying that this trend is fortunately changing now,  she tells that this certainly wasn’t the case when she started her career. “I spent most of my career trying to find places to work where I wasn’t stepping on somebody’s toes. That’s how I ended up working on rotavirus vaccine — something that nobody else was interested in. Later on, I discovered that if you work hard enough, long enough and broad enough on any one subject, you become an expert,” she mentions.

Her focus, a long-term commitment towards her work and passion for science have recently got her recognised by the Royal Society of London. Working as a scientist all these years, one of her major observations has been that for everything, women come later to hospital, and it starts at the beginning of life. She claims, “If you do a survey on girls and boys being brought to hospitals for a particular condition– even for something common like diarrhea or pneumonia, it will be 60 per cent boys and 40 per cent girls. Also, when you work in fields like surgery or medicine, you find that by the time women come for treatments, their tumours would have grown to an extent where they have become inoperable, their chronic medical condition – say diabetes – will be completely out of control. The work that I have done with women is largely around nutrition, and anemia is a particular problem that we have looked at. You see women with haemoglobin three and four and wonder how they are walking around. Nevertheless, this is something where early pick up and screening could have resulted in women needing just oral therapy, but then it becomes so bad that you have to give them transfusion and that brings along with it a host of other problems.”

Further elucidating her experience, she says, “We have found it difficult to address the problem of anemia in India because we don’t initiate treatment early and then we don’t follow up on whether the women are responding to that treatment or not. The first thing is simple: iron tablets. Many women cannot tolerate iron tablets and stop taking them and we can’t know because there is no monitoring system. About nutrition, we don’t know what the adequacy of a diet is for a pregnant woman in India– how much weight should she be gaining or what should she be eating at the various stages of her pregnancy. So, these are the issues that we are working on now but seeing their effects will take another generation. Besides, short average height of Indian women is another problem. Being under 150 centimetres is a risk factor for many things, particularly for childbirth. Small women will have a smaller pelvis which will mean that their babies will not come out normally.”

Biotechnology can help
Dr Kang also informs that a huge study is being conducted on pregnant women in Gurugram, wherein the idea is to find out why Indian babies are born too soon. “Currently, pre-term birth rate in India is higher than anywhere else in the world. One of my colleagues is working on this problem. She has a cohort and we have found that 14 per cent of the babies who have been born are pre-term. We are also looking at genetics and environmental factors, along with doing multiple ultrasounds in pregnancies – to try to understand ‘can you predict which baby is going to be born pre-term and which ones will be going all the way to term?’. Although, they already have a clue that if you live with very high environmental pollution inside or outside your house, the chances of pre-term birth are much higher,” she notifies.

Telling that the current norm for women is to have two children, she quotes the World Health Organisation (WHO) saying, “if you want two of them to grow and develop properly, have at least three years of gap between your pregnancies. What happens to us is that once you start having children, you have them at an early age and then go on to have multiple children at very short intervals because you are not educated and don’t have access to contraception. In states where access to contraception is good, the interval between babies is longer. For instance, women have much fewer children and better-spaced pregnancies in Kerala and Tamil Nadu in comparison to Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.”

She further says, “In India, we have both — oral contraception as well as mechanical devices for contraception. Oral contraception is supposed to be available but it is not frequently provided and is not something that is discussed regularly because women don’t come to health facilities until they are sick. So, they come for antenatal care because it is required but then they are already pregnant. Now that’s a stage where they should get counselling and family planning services, for when the baby is delivered and frequently systems are so focussed on the delivery of antenatal care that they forget about the post-pregnancy part– whether it is delivering a copper-T or Copper-7 or giving oral contraceptives.”

On biotechnology, Kang opines that it can contribute in a number of ways towards discovery and use of biologics, drugs, vaccines and devices. “One of factors that doesn’t get taken into account is how you tailor any of those for women. For instance, dosage of most of the drugs used in India is based on a 70 kilogram man but not everyone is of 70 kilograms. Women in India tend to be smaller, they have hormonal cycles which affects the way their body processes drugs, vaccines or any kind of biological and we don’t take that into account. So, when we think about developing new products through biotechnology, it has to be something that is suitable for the entire population, and not just the half of it. When we design new drugs or develop new biologicals which are intended for treating people, we have to make sure that we are developing them in a way that they are useful for the entire population,” she suggests.

Her healthy routine comprises running in the morning and doing yoga whenever she can. In addition to it, she eats lots of fruits and vegetables.

  • Find time for yourself
  • Keep things in moderation
  • Fads are really not a good idea

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