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Pioneer of leprosy vaccine reflects on how he almost missed a date with history 47 years ago

Written by Abantika Ghosh
| New Delhi |
Published:May 18, 2017 9:26 am


Gursharan Prasad Talwar, Pran to friends, in Delhi. Abantika Ghosh

He describes how a bacteria got its name and how he had got his, both the same. Mycobacterium indicus pranii (MIP) — the organism that drives the world’s first leprosy vaccine, developed in India and launched as a pilot project last week — owes the pranii in its name to Gursharan Prasad Talwar, considered by many to be the father of immunology in India, and to the National Institutes of Immunology (NII) of which he was founder-director.

“Pran was the name given to me by my mother who died eight days after I was born. My grandmother later took me to her spiritual guru who named me Gursharan Prasad. So I am G P in my academic records, but to all my friends and family, I am Pran,” says Talwar, now 91, sitting in his fully equipped laboratory in Delhi where he is actively engaged.

However, had it not been for one day in 1970, Talwar says he would have remained content working in the biochemistry department of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and missed his date with public health history. That day, a group of immunologists from the World Health Organisation had walked into his AIIMS office, urging him to take over as founder-director of the National Institute of Immunology, an autonomous research institution that would cater to the immunology needs of southeast Asia.

Talwar says he wasn’t keen. “But then, they asked me, ‘Do you know India has the world’s largest number of leprosy patients? Do you expect Americans to come and solve your problems?’ I immediately signed the papers and agreed to join NII though I knew nothing really about the disease. I was not a doctor,” he says.

It was during his stint at NII that the vaccine was first developed. Field trials for the vaccine were launched last week in four districts of Gujarat and two of Bihar, more than a decade after the Indian Council for Medical Research completed efficacy trials and Cadilla acquired a licence for largescale manufacturing of the vaccine.

India had for long been sceptical about the homegrown vaccine but with new cases being detected every year — and plateauing at around 1.27 lakh annually — the government had to give it a shot. If the field trials are cleared, the vaccine will be part of the National Leprosy Eradication Programme.

Talking about Talwar’s contribution, Soumya Swaminathan, ICMR Director General and Secretary of the Department of Health Research, says, “Dr Talwar has brought up an entire generation of Indian immunologists. Most directors at immunology institutes in India today were either taught by him or mentored by him. He is the father of Indian immunology. The best thing about him is that he is an innovator, he has a passion for working on things that are of immediate importance in solving people’s problems. He takes on big challenges and continues to do that even today.”

Talwar says that as someone from a non-medical background, working on leprosy was never easy, but once he took up his NII assignment on leprosy, he decided he needed to know all about the disease. So, along with some of his students, he stayed at the home of a leprosy patient in Odisha to understand the disease and why it happens. “The first question we asked ourselves was this: All of us are exposed to Mycobacterium leprae (causative organism of leprosy). Why do we not get the disease then?” he says.

Gradually, realisation dawned that much like tuberculosis, leprosy affects those with reduced immunity. Once the required immune reaction to target M leprae, the bacteria that causes leprosy, had been established, began the search for an organism that could trigger the required reaction within the body. Out of an initial list of 16 non-pathogenic bacteria, a shortlist of five was arrived at. The only one previously not known was MIP and as luck would have it, that was the one that triggered the most potent reaction among the body’s T-cells to kill M leprae.

Talwar was felicitated in Rajkot by the government of India but he has one regret. “The vaccine is currently being given to people in contact with leprosy patients. But they should give it to patients too. That will shorten their period of recovery. I have been saying that for long now,” he says.

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