Dr Navin Khanna, India’s top dengue expert, was in New York on January 25, when he received a phone call late in the night from India’s Ministry of Home Affairs informing and congratulating him for receiving India’s fourth-highest civilian award.
Speaking to The Better India about that night, he recalls, “I was in complete disbelief. The Padma Shri was a complete surprise for me.”
Only after congratulatory messages poured in from family and friends, did the 63-year-old Delhi resident believe that he was not daydreaming.
“At 8 AM EST, this information appeared on the internet, and soon, I received several congratulatory messages. That is when it all sunk in, and I felt truly humbled, blessed, and proud to see my hard work being recognised,” he adds.
The Inventor of a Low-Cost Kit That is Changing Lives
After completing a PhD in biochemistry from All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Dr Khanna was awarded a fellowship in the Canada Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research. He moved to Canada in 1986 and worked on a new endoplasmic reticulum protein for the next four years.
In 1993, he joined the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) and since then, has been working on developing various tests that can detect diseases in an uncomplicated manner. Currently, he serves as the head at the Recombinant Gene Products Group at ICGEB.
Dr Khanna’s most notable contribution to the field of medicine is a low-cost kit that can diagnose dengue within 15 minutes on the first day itself. Usually, when a test for dengue is performed, the results can take anywhere from 4 days to 2 weeks. The kit can identify whether the dengue virus is at the primary or secondary stage and interestingly if one does not have a fever, the kit can tell if the person has had any dengue infection.
His other medical projects include several versions of kits for detection of HIV, HCV, HBV infections.
The Letter From Dr APJ Kalam That Changed Everything
In 2006, there was a dengue outbreak across north India, and there was an urgent need to develop a test for screening and confirming dengue infections.
Dr Abdul Kalam, who was the Chief of Defence Research and Development Organisation at the time, sent a letter to ICGEB requesting its scientists to come up with a way to detect the mosquito-borne disease.
“Several years of research at ICGEB resulted in a prototype concept for this test, which was simple, effective and affordable. The trust and support from our industrial and manufacturing partner, Lalit Mahajan, CEO and owner of J. Mitra & Co Pvt Ltd proved to be a game-changer,” says Dr Navin.
Another dengue outbreak six years later opened the market channels for this test called ‘Dengue Day 1’.
With limited and cheap diagnostic options available in the market, the demand for kit developed by the team of ICGEB was high, and the cost eventually came down from Rs 2,000 to Rs 250.
Presently, the kits are priced at Rs 140 to the distributors and several lakhs have been purchased by many state governments in India on yearly contracts with the kit manufacturer, J Mitra. In addition to the Dengue Day-1 test, the “know-how” from Dr Khanna’s team has resulted in the commercialization of 23, highly affordable, yet specific and sensitive diagnostic kits for other diseases.
How Can This Low-Cost Kit That Can Reduce Dengue-Related Deaths
According to global estimates shared by Dr Khanna, 10 per cent of the total global dengue burden is from India. “However, better awareness, appropriate vector control methods and early diagnosis are key factors in reducing the number of dengue cases and deaths,” he says.
There are four closely related viruses (DENV 1, 2,3 & 4) that can cause dengue fever (DF) and its severe forms known as Dengue Haemorrhagic fever(DHF) and the lethal Dengue Shock Syndrome (DSS).
The primary infection can be silent, and the patient may not know if he or she is affected. In such a case, the secondary virus infection is very high at risk, which can even lead to DHF, DSS, trauma, haemorrhage and death.
The kit which contains two devices can detect all four viruses and can even differentiate between the primary and secondary infection.
Dr Navin’s kit can provide early detection and doctors can thus take measures based on the severity.
“Social innovation has to lead to inclusion. Hence, connecting the urban and the rural through innovation is very important. Innovation in all sectors is the need of the hour. India has seen a severe spike in deaths caused due to dengue and keeping this in mind, Dr Khanna’s affordable Dengue test kit is a crucial innovation,” said Dr Raghunath Mashelkar, General of India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, to Hindustan Times.
Not stopping at kits, Dr Navin and his team at ICGEB are now working towards developing the world’s first safe and effective anti-dengue botanical drug to fight dengue.
“Currently, there is no safe and broad-use dengue vaccine or a drug available to fight the dengue menace. However, several dengue vaccines are in late-stage of clinical trials. Our team at ICGEB, in collaboration with Sun Pharma, is also developing a recombinant dengue vaccine candidate, that is entering early stages of clinical development. This activity is supported by the National Biopharma Mission of the Government of India,” shares Dr Navin.
While the rapid kit and drug can significantly help reduce dengue-related deaths, Dr Navin emphasises on preventive measures that an individual can take.
“It is very simple to prevent dengue. The day-time biting dengue mosquito is very lazy. Its flying range is about 200 meters, and it breeds only in clean stagnant water. If you get infected with the dengue virus, the chances are that you got bitten in your home or work-place. Thus, we only need to keep our surroundings free from clean stagnant water puddles to defeat dengue,” he signs off.
Featured image source: Dr Navin Khanna
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)