DRDO Scientist Touts Technology And Folk Medicine
A modern military draws on many disciplines to assure that personnel maintain peak levels of physical and mental readiness. One key area is the development and implementation of life science technologies that enhance operational efficiency. William Selvamurthy, chief controller of life sciences and human resources at India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), works tirelessly to promote innovations in high-tech areas ranging from medical treatments and crop genetics to nano technology. Folk remedies are also important fields of study too, as evidenced by his embrace of yoga for some therapies. The goal for each area is the same: enhancement of troop morale, motivation and well-being. DRDO’s nine life sciences laboratories have developed 55 products that improve troop survival in extreme conditions. The organization also partners with India’s private sector to accelerate developments, the payoff for business being technology transfers that build markets and bottom lines. Contributing Editor Neelam Mathews interviewed Selvamurthy at his office in New Delhi for his perspective on DRDO’s growth and expansion plans in life sciences.
Defense Technology International: DRDO is recognized for its work in medicines that also benefit civilians. Since you are primarily funded for defense, why did you delve into this sector?
Selvamurthy: My focus is defense. I’m looking at the needs of the soldier. The societal impact is a spin-off of the technology. Many life-enhancing drugs such as penicillin arose from military needs. Russia’s use of herbal medicine got a boost when it was used to improve the performance of the military.
What are some major spin-offs from your work?
Oncology-related products like 2-deoxy-d-glucose (2-DG) for cancer therapy, which facilitated the development of pharmaceutical products for enhancing the effects of radiation therapy and making it effective in cancers with poor response to radiation therapy such as brain tumors and sarcomas. The effect of 2-DG on non-surgical treatment of cancers is significant and just now being realized. The technology has been transferred to Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories [of Bengaluru, India] after regulatory approvals. The drug may also reduce side effects from radiation, which would have battlefield relevance.
Others include Diagnobact for infection imaging, Attracticide for mosquito control, Typhigen kits for typhoid diagnosis, food technologies for meals-ready-to-eat, horticultural development at high altitude, critical-care ventilators, titanium dental implants and orthosis treatments for polio patients.
What are some of your biggest successes?
There are many. The biggest is acclimatization for soldiers deployed at high altitudes—3,000 meters (9,800 ft.) plus—that resulted in reductions in mortality and morbidity.
An inhalation therapy for alveolar deposition has been designed for treating cases with pulmonary hypertension, acute mountain sickness and edema using a simple delivery system, Anukool, developed at DRDO’s Institute of Nuclear Medicine and Allied Sciences. More than 150 people have undergone the therapy, the majority defense personnel. Non-medical personnel can administer the therapy in the field. Anukool drug delivery is based on a simple nebulizer that works on a reentry principle. When connected between the aerosol generator and the mouthpiece, it changes features of the aerosol in such a way that it favors deposition in the periphery of the lung rather than the central regions. This enhances the local effect of the drug and minimizes systemic effects.
We developed therapeutic modalities for treatment of high-altitude pulmonary edema using nitric oxide (15 ppm.) and oxygen (50%), and for frostbite using aloe vera cream, significantly reducing the mortality of troops deployed at high altitude.
We have also used yoga to help in stress management, reduction of suicide rates and improved efficiency in Siachen (the Siachen Glacier on the border of India and Pakistan). Today, wars are fought with the mind. Soldiers need the right psychological, physiological and cognitive processing to make good decisions.
Did you face skeptics when you introduced yoga?
Yes, but our study proved them wrong. We introduced yoga three years ago in base camps in Ladakh [northern India]. We have published 25 papers in journals where we demonstrated scientifically that stress levels and pulmonary edema were radically reduced [with yoga]. Today, the beneficial effects of yoga are accepted, and it has been [added to training] by the army and navy. We are training 300 people to popularize this concept in the army. In the Chinese army, conventional and traditional methods of medicine are in use. Soldiers must have the option to choose.
Food is an important aspect of military readiness. What are you doing to improve its availability in extreme environments?
We are working on a transgenic tomato that will grow at high altitude. Vegetable crops are subjected to stress conditions such as drought and cold at high altitude. Introgression of genes in desired crops for cold and drought tolerance may help overcome this problem. DRDO has successfully tried a biotechnology approach for genetic transformation in tomato crops. We are looking at two genes that are tolerant of less water and cold, which have been transferred to tomato plants, and have contacted the national food safety commission. Morphological, physiological and biochemical studies are underway on these transformed plants. The confirmed lines are being advanced and are under evaluation for important agronomical parameters.
What other developments have been successful?
We developed a prophylactic method using carbogen (5% carbon dioxide and 95% oxygen) for protection against noise-induced hearing loss among crews in ships and tanks. And trials have been conducted with non-lethal smoke grenades [that use the ultra-hot Bhut Jolokia pepper as the debilitating component]. It gives out such pungent smoke that a person flees or comes out of hiding. The smoke brings tears to the eyes of the person coming in contact with it and chokes the respiratory tract (DTI May, p. 46).
How has technology transfer to private industry affected development?
We have started engaging industry in risk and revenue sharing. Larsen & Toubro Infotech Ltd. [of Bengaluru], for instance, is in partnership with our project for an onboard oxygen-generating system to increase endurance of pilots. It has invested $1 million in the assembly line and is looking at exports. In October, two engineering models will be demonstrated and tested. The Light Combat Aircraft will fly with this.
We collected bacteria from Antarctica at -40C to study cultures that aid biodegradation. As a result, we have 140 biotoilets in use in Siachen, and the commercial spin-off of this technology is being used on six trains operated by the railroad commission, and by the tourism industry.
What progress has been made in developing processes to convert titanium tetrachloride into titanium sponge?
DRDO has developed a state-of-the art technology for the production of titanium sponge, the principal raw material for the manufacture of titanium alloys for aerospace and corrosion-resistant applications. This will enable India to utilize its titanium reserves. Only four or five countries practice sponge production commercially. The indigenous technology development program involved design and development of systems and equipment, research, fine-tuning of process parameters and demonstrations with adequate consistency and reproducibility of sponge quality. The technology gap in titanium metal production has been bridged. This will pave the way for setting up the first commercial plant for titanium sponge production in the country.
Processes comprising air-induction melting and electro-slag refining have also been developed to produce iron-aluminide-based advanced intermetallics. Technologies and processes such as ion plasma deposition of protective layers and laser processing have been established [and have led to the development of high-grade structural and armor applications for naval vessels].
What do you see taking place in nanotechnology and nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) technology?
We are launching a major R&D initiative using nanotechnology for detection of NBC warfare. DRDO has developed many technologies for NBC detection and decontamination, as well as for protection against such weapons to minimize loss of life. We are looking at stand-alone systems for sensing, working on a lightweight suit that will on its own achieve decontamination after an NBC attack, and studying light-detection and ranging technology to detect NBC agents at 5 km. (3 mi.).
What type of facilities will you need to achieve these goals?
We are setting up a nanofoundry with a biosensors fabrication unit. We will start with products made of nanocomposites. It could be a public-private partnership, as it is a huge market. We will be ready to start manufacturing by 2015. Carbon nanotubes (CNT) reinforced with a polymer matrix will be the basis of composites that are strong, lightweight, intelligent and small.
What are your plans for aerospace development?
We have created a CNT facility in Kanpur with the help of Pennsylvania State University and the University of Arkansas that will help in training, and there are 12 DRDO labs working on nanopackaging and related developments. This work will eventually lead to a nanomanufacturing site.
Chief Controller of Life Sciences and Human Resources, DRDO, New Delhi
Birthplace: Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu, India
Education: M.S. in Physiology from Christian Medical College, Vellore, 1972; Ph.D. in human physiology from University of Delhi 1982; DSc. in yoga science from Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana, Bangalore, in 2005.
Background: Joined DRDO in 1973; served as director of the Defense Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences and the Defense Institute of Psychological Research. Appointed chief controller in 2003. Selvamurthy’s research work has included physiological acclimatization at high altitude, yoga for military, detecting and controlling severe hemorrhaging, psychological stress and its management, and life support systems for soldiers in extreme environments. He has published 12 books, 170 research papers, and been awarded a number of honorary degrees and awards including DRDO’s Technology Leadership Award in 2008.