We often hear of cutting edge technology successes in the west. It is however rare to find a company out of India that can push the envelope in the west while also making an impact on the billions in India. Indeed, it is rare to capture the sight of someone who dares to dream of cutting edge science and of providing hope to the world of a billion people around him. One such visionary is Dr. Ramesh Hariharan, a former computer scientist and bioinformatician who worked as a professor at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) before teaming up with his colleagues to change the way universities operate in India, forever.
The Humble Beginnings of a Revolution
While pursuing his PhD thesis at New York University, Dr. Hariharan designed new algorithms for processing large numbers of character sequences, e.g., those in the human genome. He then returned to India to the Indian Institute of Science with the goal of building a research program that would combine large scale computing and biology. This early work and a collaboration with three other dynamic and like-minded colleagues then led to a historic chapter for all Indian universities as this group convinced IISc to allow them to set-up a business enterprise, Strand Life Sciences. This was a historic event – the very first time that a public university in India allowed its faculty to spin off a company and hold equity in that company. Since then the team at Strand has grown to more than 200 strong and the algorithms and tools it has built have played a role in numerous research discoveries. Over 20,000 publications in literature cite these tools.
The Real Revolution
The real revolution began when Dr. Hariharan and the team at Strand took their successful record of enabling scientific discoveries and started using the same tools for the betterment of human health. India, a country of a billion people, has a huge burden of genetic disease. Roughly 1 in a 100 individuals suffers on account of a serious genetic mutation. Such individuals often go from pillar to post to obtain a diagnosis, which often remains elusive for years or decades at end. The advent of large scale genomic sequencing in the west offered such patients a way to shorten this diagnostic odyssey. However, the costs of genome sequencing and the handling of the large amounts of data generated remained very high, in fact prohibitive for most Indian patients. This is where the team at Strand came in. With its extensive experience in algorithms and tools for processing genome sequences and its strong expertise in molecular biology, Strand was able to optimize this process in multiple ways and offer a diagnosis to a large fraction of the patients at a fraction of the costs in the west.
Dr. Hariharan and the team at Strand continue to optimize these processes further and also build the next generation of cutting-edge products that will help understand the basis for each individual’s cancer, help determine personalized treatment, as well as help track the efficacy of this treatment via non-invasive blood draws as opposed to invasive biopsies. Over the next several years, these methods can be key in reducing the rapidly rising mortality and morbidity of cancer in India.
India’s Beacon of Hope
Dr. Hariharan has been recognized with some of the highest honors among innovators around the world. He was awarded the Dewang Mehta Award for Innovation in Information Technology by the Government of India in 2002 for creating India’s first handheld computer device, the Simputer, one of seven individuals in the country chosen for this honor. He was featured in the MIT Technology review’s ‘Top 100 Young Innovators’ list in 2002 and became a fellow of both the Indian Academy of Science and the Indian National Academy of Engineering.
A Book That Captures this Fascinating Experience
Dr. Hariharan’s experience of using computational algorithms to benefit patients, and in particular, the experience of scouring a patient’s genome to determine the mutation at the heart of the problem, has been captured in a book titled “Genomic Quirks”. This book is published by IISc Press and uses a sampling of Strand’s patient referrals to illustrate the intense, frenetic activity that goes into providing a patient with a diagnosis, which Dr. Hariharan calls the genomics war room. An excerpt from his book..
In this genomics war room, molecular biologists in lab coats or their robot equivalents, scurry around transferring samples from one receptacle to another. In this process, genomic molecules are extracted from the patient’s sample, chopped into small fragments and subjected to a multitude of manipulations. Eventually, the genome sequence comes out, but rather indirectly – in the form of millions to billions of tiny fragment sequences that amount to gigabytes of data. High-performance computers then piece these fragments back together, like a jigsaw puzzle. A comparison between this assembled jigsaw and that for a normal person yields a long list of variants, i.e., characters that are likely suspects. Computers then scour vast amounts of biomedical literature for information that helps zoom-in on the most relevant of these suspects, typically a handful in number. Finally, trained geneticists rack their brains to identify the ones that hold a clue to the patient’s condition. If all goes well, one or two clear candidates emerge and are reported back to the doctor. But things don’t always go well…
The Journey Has Just Begun
Strand was built on a solid foundation led by the guidance of its earlier CEO and co-founder, Dr. Vijay Chandru, and Dr. Hariharan, as well as the energy of its more than 200 employees. Building on the strengths of its interdisciplinary team of scientists, bioinformaticians, and medical professionals, Strand continues to expand its suite of tools and products for research as well as for medical impact. Strand’s list of customers and partners includes leading academic labs, instrument companies, diagnostic companies, and pharmaceutical companies. Strand’s footprint of laboratories in India is growing to cover a far greater geographical spread as Strand’s image as the most scientifically trustworthy and reliable company continues to strengthen.