From the lab to the hospital
Prof. Suman Chakraborty, Head, School of Medical Science and Technology, talks about the thrust areas, ongoing programmes, research, achievements and long-term goals of one of the youngest and most ambitious departments of IIT Kharagpur
Could you talk about the genesis of SMST?
The department started its journey in 2001 against a background where technology was progressively coming into the domain of medical world. It was felt that a unique school or department should be established that would work at the interface between medicine and technology. A medical school would be bothered about the clinical aspects of the study, not necessarily on the technology that goes behind medical devices. On the other hand, an engineering school classically is not equipped to take up the responsibility. An interdisciplinary department was required. And that is how SMST came to be in 2001.
What are the ongoing academic programs/courses of SMST?
The flagship programme of this school is MMST or the three-year Masters in Medical Science and Technology, an interdisciplinary program, which is first of its kind in India. This is a unique program where medical graduates, i.e. MBBS, take up a course in medical technology. The first few batches ran successfully and this motivated us to expand the scope of the department. Subsequently, an MTech programme started in medical imaging and informatics as a number of Faculty members were working in that area. This programme still continues but we will soon replace this program with one on Biomedical Engineering from next year. The idea is that postgraduate-level education need not be a super-specialization in medical imaging and informatics. There are so many other areas that can be clubbed under Biomedical Engineering. This is a standard, highly recognized Masters programme, considered all around the world as a very lucrative one, including in India, and we felt it was the right time to explore this area.
Apart from this, we have been exploring international tie-ups for developing joint programmes. We are in the final stages of tying up with some top universities with whom we are about to offer the programmes jointly, i.e., joint academic programme plus jointly supervised thesis work. These will be Masters-level programmes.
Over the years, we have felt that medical technology-based work is not complete unless you have a clinical connection. Technological development should go from bench to bedside, that is, from the laboratory to the hospital. We also have to learn a lot from the needs of the clinicians who are actually serving the patients. That is why we have started collaborations with many leading medical colleges and hospitals. One structured programme is the joint education and research programme with Tata Medical Centre (TMC) at Kolkata. From 2018, we started 3 joint MSc-PhD programmes in collaboration with Tata. The entire academics is looked after by IIT KGP, but TMC is providing its expertise in teaching, research and access to the labs and data necessary to do medical research. The three areas are molecular medical microbiology, nuclear medicine and medical physics.
This year we selected students through a highly competitive entrance exam. We are happy with the students and they are exceptionally bright. They are the future generation medical technologists. They are from a wide background like chemistry, physics, biology. They are not necessarily doctors. We have to understand that the entire support system in the medical world is heavily dependent on medical scientists who may not always be medical doctors by training.
Are there courses for qualified doctors other than the MMST?
For qualified doctors, we have started a special programme with Tata Medical Centre – a highly advanced certification programme on clinical oncology. We have selected 10 junior doctors from TMC this year who will be participating in an advanced research program. Doctors usually do MD, DM etc. after graduating. But they can now undertake super-specialization in the niche topic of clinical oncology research with at least one supervisor from IIT KGP and the other from Tata Medical Centre. They are not required to stay on campus. There is a designated time during which they visit IIT KGP and interact with faculty member and team supervisors. This is a dynamic programme and we are trying increase the number of such flexible programmes. Doctors trained by SMST will help us translate our dream of making the transition from lab to hospital.
What are the other programs run by the school?
Apart from this there are the usual research programmes run by the Institute, such as MS and PhD programs where students are drawn from all backgrounds. Medical Science and technology is such an interdisciplinary area that people from all backgrounds can contribute. Even for MTech in Biomedical Engineering we have not put any restrictions on the UG programme. Someone who has done mechanical engineering can take up biomechanics as a scope of research/Masters programme. Someone who has done Computer Science can use big data analytics and machine learning to solve problems in the clinical setting. So we are quite flexible.
Is there a larger vision behind SMST’s programs and activities?
We are trying to internationalize our program as much as possible. Hence we are tying up with hospitals all around the world. We are also at a critical juncture since our own medical college and hospital is about to begin early next year. As the SMST Head, it is my vision is to integrate the ongoing research activities of SMST with that of the hospital. That is where all our hypotheses, technology development, research, scientific understanding will be validated and brought to the benefit of patients. Not only that, we are also bringing a large number of specialist doctors from all around the world to be a part of our hospital. We are going to leverage on their presence on campus.
What are the thrust areas of SMST?
Our faculty is diverse and this is reflected in the research. Some of our faculty members are doctors, others from basic sciences and engineering. We work as a team. The thrust areas a. Microfluidics and Point of Care Diagnostics, b. Multimodal Medical Imaging & Image Processing, c. Tissue Engineering, Regenerative Medicine, d. Stem cells and Bio-Materials, and Signal Transduction, Proteomics and reproductive health, and e. Cancer Biology & Public Health.
They can be broadly divided into diagnostics and therapeutics. Diagnostics is about diagnosing diseases and therapeutics is about delivering the treatment which may require medicines, or medical devices. So development of devices, drugs etc. fall under this category. One particular focus is cancer detection and management. Lots of faculty members and students are working in this area. My own thrust area is affordable diagnostics. Instead of using costly diagnostic methods, we have devised simple, low cost devices essentially made from pieces of paper or plastic where, with a drop of blood, saliva or urine, one can do a large number of tests at low cost almost immediately. Instead of bringing the patient to the hospital, one can bring these handheld medical devices to the hospital to get the diagnostic test done. This is called point-of-care diagnostics.
What are the recent accomplishments of your department?
Our students are engaged in collaborative research and internship programmes with top medical device companies or top universities throughout the globe. And out all other departments, I believe SMST possibly has the strongest visibility internationally. Several international awards have been won by students and the Faculty. Our students are DAAD and Fullbright fellows. Our Faculty members are fellows of the prestigious national academies of science. I have been a recipient of Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award, am a fellow of all national academies of science and engineering. I am the JC Bose National Fellow Institute Chair Professor and was recently awarded fellowship of the Americal Physical Society as well as the Royal Society of Chemistry.
As a department we are a strong unit, but we need to grow further. We have recently recruited very bright young faculty members, most of them are doing research in the interface of fundamental biology with clinical application – immunology, cardiac sciences for example. I could mention Dr Gayatri Mukherjee, Prafulla Shukla, and Nishant Chakravarty as the latest entrants to the Faculty. Dr Chakravaty is an alumnus of the department and a flag-bearer. He was the MMST topper and did his PhD abroad. He works on research interfacing clinical aspects with medical technology, also on stem cells, maternal and child health.
Since we are not yet a large unit, each Faculty has a lab to his or her own. We are going to aggressively recruit new faculty and want to recruit members who work at the interface of medical science and engineering.
Are there any projects close to your heart?
Our vision is to use deep science leading to sustainable technology for public welfare. There are two Imprint projects under my investigation, both involving affordable diagnostics. Affordable healthcare, as you know, is a mission of our institute. We are in the final stages of getting a large project whereby technology developed by us will be transferred to medium and small scale industries. They will create an ecosystem that will make practical devices implementable in the medical world. SMST will act as the Centre of Research for Technology development that will allow small scale industries to incubate and then transfer what happens in the lab to practical life. There are innumerable Startups that make devices and diagnostics but these are not validated. We are, for the first time, going to bridge this gap by developing a unique tech hub that will be fully funded by the govt.
Are there any notable affordable healthcare products made by SMST?
Yes, there are two. One is paper based microfluidic device which have small channels in the paper. Blood dropped in this device will go through the channels and react with reagents. A change of colour will happen if there is a particular disease. The change of colour signal is recorded by a camera and this information is digitally processed. In case of blood glucose level, haemoglobin, bilirubin, these are calibrated against the image data and the information is transferred to a smart phone. These are inexpensive devices. Anyone with a pricking device can do this. This is ‘colorimetric detection’.
The other uses a similar technology. It is called a Lab on a CD. By centrifugal force, the sample of blood, saliva or urine, whichever is being tested, will go radially outwards and react with certain chemicals. Here we are using electrochemical detection. The change of electrical signals or impedance will signal the result of the test. We are trying to implement this in extreme rural settings – places where there is no power supply or refrigeration. This is called extreme point of care diagnostics.