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Bikramjit Basu: The bone creator

Bikramjit Basu, an associate professor at the tree-covered, 114-year-old Indian Institute of Science, has successfully merged previously disconnected scientific worlds—a rare occurrence in this country—to become a pioneer at a sparsely frequented frontier in India. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/MintPremium
Bikramjit Basu, an associate professor at the tree-covered, 114-year-old Indian Institute of Science, has successfully merged previously disconnected scientific worlds—a rare occurrence in this country—to become a pioneer at a sparsely frequented frontier in India. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Using electricity as his language, an engineer persuades living cells to grow on artificial surfaces, a precursor to a new era in medicine

In a cool, silent basement in an uncharacteristically lush, silent corner of teeming Bangalore, Bikramjit Basu wanders among the tools of his trade: living cells, a microscope, an autoclave and ultraviolet chamber to keep things sterile and refrigeration units. Everything appears connected with biology, the investigation of living matter.

“It does look like a medical laboratory, doesn’t it?" says the genial Basu, 40, a metallurgical engineer, clearly amused at the deceptive appearance of his workplace. He opens an incubator, where not babies but human cells are growing at 37 degrees C, which is the temperature of the body and thus ideal.

Yet, there is a deep-freezer-sized 3-D printer, which someone obviously commandeered in a droll moment to manufacture a model car. There are magnets, batteries and a gas cylinder, all connected with engineering, the discipline of building artificial things.

Basu, an associate professor at the tree-covered, 114-year-old Indian Institute of Science (IISc), has successfully merged previously disconnected scientific worlds—a rare occurrence in this country—to become a pioneer at a sparsely frequented frontier in India.

In his modest two-room laboratory, working with students and collaborators at IIT Kanpur (his previous employer), IISc and Brown University, an Ivy league institution in the US, Basu grows cells on non-living material to manufacture, or bioengineer, prototypes of new bones. He persuades cardiac and nerve cells to similarly regenerate. “We use living cells as construction material," says Basu, who learnt his science in Bengali, his language of instruction till class XII.

After seven years of research, Basu’s contributions were recognized with the Bhatnagar Award this year, India’s premier recognition for young scientists. The son of a former stationmaster with the Indian Railways, Basu has laid a strong, theoretical foundation for what is called biomaterials science, combining his engineering training with a largely self-taught knowledge of biology. The applications lie in creating laboratory grown bone, cardiac and neural tissue in reconstructive surgery.

At the heart of Basu’s investigations is electricity, more precisely the mastery of extremely mild electric currents, which course through and serve as the language of living cells. The idea that electricity informs cells how to grow is not new. Living things have a constant, though very gentle, flow of electricity. Over decades, scientists have even fiddled with voltages to create frogs with eyes on their back and hearts in the wrong places.

What Basu does is apply electricity to grow bone, cardiac, nerve and even stem cells (which can grow into other types of cells) atop an artificial substrate, or surface, somewhat like butter on toast—except that this butter must spread itself on the diner’s urging.

This is not easy. The bioengineer requires a precise knowledge of when and how much electric current to apply to cells growing on foreign foundations. “Cell division should not be affected and the cells should not die," says Basu. “When two cells talk to each other, the material has to facilitate that crosstalk."

For instance, Basu’s group uses substrates that mimic human bones, most of which is composed or an inorganic—without carbon, or essentially non-living—compound called hydroxyapatite. Another characteristic of bone is piezoelectricity, electrical energy produced from mechanical pressure, such as walking, subtly changing the bone every day.

Basu’s laboratory has learned to synthesize hydroxyapatite crystals and leaven them with a variety of materials, such as titanium and silver. They also use a 3-D printer to craft scaffolds from these bone materials. For a bioengineered bone to behave like the real thing, it must do many things: conduct electricity, be elastic, yet hard, and bear loads, while simultaneously being able to produce new bone cells and fight microbial invasions.

For biomaterials to be successful, they must be accepted by the body. A major risk during implantation is infection, primarily by bacteria. Basu and his teams have harnessed another of nature’s powers, magnetism in this case, to retard the growth of bacteria.

Pointing to what looks like a plain, black box, Basu explains how he and his students rigged a sandwich of magnets and bacteria to confirm their theory. A slew of such home-grown appliances lie next to imported instruments, evidence of the must-do spirit that guides Basu’s research, which he is determined to take beyond the laboratory.

Bioengineered bone has already been tested in rabbits. A tiny cylinder of what Basu calls “neo bone", 2 mm in diameter, implanted through a hole drilled into a rabbit’s femur, successfully led to bone regeneration. The next step is experimentation either in primates or humans, but this requires a host of further research, protocols and permissions. Clinical trials are unlikely to start before 2015.

Unlike the West, where a laboratory such as Basu’s would be attached to a hospital, in compartmentalized, that’s-not-my-department India, Basu must reach out to hospitals and companies. It is a difficult task. Indian hospitals and doctors are notoriously overburdened, and there is little time or inclination for research—except for a few, such as Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Centre and Homi Bhabha National Institute, which specializes in the treatment of cancers.

Basu’s collaborator at the Tata hospital is the Chief of Orthopaedic Oncology, Ajay Puri, who a decade ago developed a low-cost metallic prosthesis, or implant, for patients who previously faced amputation of limbs with cancer-ravaged bones. Now, only the cancerous part of the bone is removed and replaced with the prosthesis. But the prosthesis is still a mechanical device with a limited life span, Puri tells me over email. He points to the “paucity of research" in developing the bone replacements that India needs. Basu’s technique of inducing bone cells to grow will hopefully make for a stronger, more lasting prosthetic. “This experience will be applicable to enhancing the current prosthesis, used even for conventional arthritic joint replacement," says Puri. Basu’s other research tie is with Bangalore’s M S Ramaiah Advanced Learning Centre, a part of the 34-year-old M S Ramaiah Medical College.

With industry, he has two collaborations. One is with Adler Mediequip, a Pune company that specializes in implants, spine and limb salvage (it’s now been acquired by Smith and Nephew, a global medical technology business). The artificial bone developed at Basu’s laboratory will become a part of Adler’s offering for hip replacement.

The other agreement is with a Hyderabad startup called ExCel Matrix Biological Devices Pvt Ltd, focused on engineering artificial human and animal tissue for drug development and regenerative medicine. Basu’s group will test cell responses to a biomaterial developed by Excel to repair cartilage. They will also conduct pre-clinical animal studies on the effectiveness of the new material and its compatibility with the body.

ExCel’s Managing Director Aroop Kumar Dutta—a skeptic about academia-industry collaboration—tells me Basu cold called him a year ago. “I didn’t know who he was, but he knew about us," says Dutta. “No professor or institute in India has ever walked up to us like he did. He has shown us his commitment." He quickly adds: “We do have to remember the dark side—I will have to deal with the scientific bureaucracy, I don’t know how that will work out."

Basu exudes nothing but optimism and determination. “I need to translate all this (research) to workable applications," says Basu, author of two textbooks, editor of another and author or co-author of 200 peer-reviewed journal papers. “My idea is to think big picture." That ambition drove him to recommend a new Centre for Excellence in Biomaterials at IISc. The government’s Department of Science and Technology in Delhi is evaluating his proposal.

As part of his philosophy that scientists must straddle disciplines, collaborate, solve Indian problems and pass on what they learn, Basu acquaints his doctoral and post-doctoral students with a quote in Sanskrit, something his father used to tell him: Swadese pujjate raja, vidyan sarbatra pujjate. A king is respected only in his own country, a learned person is respected worldwide.

Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist. This is a fortnightly column that explores the cutting edge of science and technology. Comments are welcome at frontiermail@livemint.com. To read Samar Halarnkar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/frontiermail-

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