In the words of Narayana Murthy, “There is only one ingredient for innovation and that is the power of the human mind.” And there is little argument about the talent pool when it comes to the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT). What started out as an institution offering undergraduate education in technical studies, has, over the years, gone through quite a bit of evolution. Now, the 23 IITs boast of expertise in several fields, in-depth academic knowledge, and the ability to apply this knowledge in research and innovation.
Take the case of Rajnish Giri, Assistant Professor, IIT Mandi in Himachal Pradesh. His study on the protein structure of the Zika virus opened up several possibilities in terms of a possible cure. With help from his team -Vladimir Uversky from the University of South Florida and research scholar Pushpendra Mani Mishra - Rajnish successfully identified the regions of the Zika virus molecule responsible for its interaction with a human host. This is just one of the many instances that marked a breakthrough in the perpetually-growing research ecosystem in India.
When it comes to innovative and original ideas, health science is often seen as a popular discipline among scientists and researchers. A team from IIT-Roorkee, for example, made headway with its cancer drug research this November. With a focus on diagnostics and treatment, the researchers, guided by Dr P Gopinath, came up with fluorescent carbon nanodots for simultaneous detection and destruction of cancer cells. The nanosized carbon material was extracted from the leaves of the rosy periwinkle plant.
While IIT Roorkee’s researchers took a major leap towards opening up a new paradigm in the field of anticancer therapy; team Rise, led by Kamakoti Veezhinathan from IIT-Madras joined forces to develop what is India’s first indigenous microprocessor, ‘Shakti’. Designed with a microchip fabricated at the Semi-Conductor Laboratory of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in Chandigarh, the microprocessor is suited for communication as well as for the defence sector.
At Indian Institute of Technology, Mandi, researchers have also been busy figuring out techniques to harvest water from fog this year. The group, led by Venkata Krishnan, Associate Professor of Chemistry at the School of Basic Sciences, IIT Mandi, studied the intricate structures on the leaves of a plant called Dragon's lily head (Gladiolus dalenii) and tried emulating them into materials that can similarly harvest water.
The basic principle behind the innovation is simple: if plants in arid and semi-arid regions could harvest water from dew and fog, so can humans using modern technology.
At Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, students developed an antivenom in collaboration with America’s San Jose University. Aiming for a $1 per dose pricing, the antivenom is deemed to be effective against a bunch of snakebites and is also being seen as a more stable substitute to the varieties currently available in India.
IIT-Delhi made another significant contribution this year. In a first, researchers from the institute created a silk-based hydrogel that mimics the various stages of hair growth in humans. And how is this useful? It would allow to try out novel drugs meant to combat hair loss, an innovative alternative to cruel animal testing.
Another first of its kind innovation last year was the Local Electrode Atom Probe (LEAP), a remotely operable microscope, courtesy of IIT-Madras, which spearheaded the project along with eight other elite research institutions from the country. Unlike most other devices, though, LEAP (worth Rs 40 crore) can be operated via special terminals across geographies.
As inventions like LEAP provided a thrust in the department of nanotechnology, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and related research too made their way to the news.
In July, all eyes were on C Krishna Mohan, Dinesh Singh and C Vishnu, the trio from IIT-Hyderabad responsible for developing an AI-based solution to enable automatic detection of helmet offenders on roads. Their solution works twofold: with installation in CCTV cameras and in the servers of the control rooms.
Usually, the idea behind most of these innovations is to develop something novel or find a solution to a persistent problem. While AI and machine learning are certainly the newest subjects on the block, researchers also dedicated their time towards the treatment of viral diseases like chikungunya last year. Transmitted via infected mosquitos, the disease saw an outbreak in 2005-2006 and later in 2016, which prompted scientists and researchers to come up with something more substantial to treat this disease.
Incidentally, there are no drugs or vaccines for chikungunya at the moment. However, the biotechnology laboratory at IIT-Roorkee may have discovered a possible solution – a molecule exhibiting antiviral activity against the disease. Carried out in collaboration with local pathologies, the research - in developmental phase – is expected to be an advance in this field in the future.
Another chronic illness plaguing India is diabetes. According to the International Diabetes Federation, by 2040, the number of people with this condition would rise to a staggering 123 million. Given these dire figures, students at IIT Madras focussed towards an inexpensive wound dressing material, specially designed to help diabetic patients heal faster.
The dressing material was developed using a carbon allotrope and psyllium husk. According to Vignesh Muthuvijayan, assistant professor at IIT-M and the researcher associated with the project, the aim is to cut down the cost of these fast-healing materials 50-60 fold and bring it to around Rs 1,000.
Overall, the year was particularly fruitful, if all the novel ideas and innovations are taken into account. While the older and more established institutes continued to make progress across disciplines, the newer ones also made their presence felt in 2018, one breakthrough idea at a time.
As proved by IIT Ropar’s Associate Professor Ravibabu Mulaveesala and his team of researchers. With Infrared Thermography at the heart of the study, Mulaveesala and his team made headway in early detection of breast cancer across various age groups. They devised a “fast, painless, non-contact, and non-invasive imaging method” to detect tumours. Considering the fact that breast cancer ranks #1 among Indian women with a mortality rate as high as 12.7 per 100,000 women, research like this surely paves the way for future advances.