At a private interaction at the Kochi International Book Festival, Dr. Hameed Khan drops a bombshell.
“We are trapped in a dying solar system,” he says. “Our sun is collapsing. It has used up half of its energy. 500 million tonnes of hydrogen are used every second. This middle-aged star will run out of energy. We have to find a new home, and a new planet to live on. We cannot stay on this earth forever.”
Khan gives an example. “In 1987, there was a supernova explosion,” he says. “This was exactly the same as our planet: one earth, eight planets, and more than 140 moons. It exploded, because it kept on burning hydrogen, in the same manner as our sun.”
But where do we go? “There are 500 billion solar systems in the Milky Way, as well as 100 billion galaxies,” says Khan. “The universe is so vast. It must be teeming with life. And there may be thousands of earth-sized planets all over the universe.”
But are they habitable? “How do we know unless we do an intense search?” says Khan.
Dr. Khan is a Senior Scientist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in USA. He discovered the Aziridinyl Quinone that shuts off the gene that causes breast cancer. For this he received the 2004 NIH Scientific Achievement Award. His other interests include working on the Personal Genome Project.
“Each human cell carries 24,000 genes,” he says, while on a visit to Kochi to speak about the Genome Project. “In that, there are 16,000 good, 2000 non-functional, and 6000 bad genes. These bad genes could become mutated. Genes become bad for four reasons: radiation, chemical or viral infections or genetic inheritance. And you can get any one of the 6000 diseases which has a genetic basis.”
But through the genetic sequencing of the DNA, at one glance we can find out which genes are bad. “Ideally, to ensure that there are no tragedies like mental retardation, physical disabilities or autism, the egg and sperm has to be tested before marriage,” says Khan. “And then one will be able to say whether you will have a healthy baby or not. That is one of the great advantages of sequencing.”
Not everyone agrees to these methods. In fact, the US government has banned research into stem cells. Because scientists will be able to manipulate, for example, the type of babies that can be born or extend human life upto 200 years.
“This ban is a great loss,” says Khan. “There should be freedom to do research.” Incidentally, stem cells are got through the mix of the egg and the sperm. “The fertilised egg is full of stem cells,” says Khan. “It has the ability to make anything. We siphon it out through a tube, before it attaches itself to the womb and harvest it.”
Around one lakh cells can be grown in a petri dish. “You take some spinal fluid and put it into a cup of stem cells,” says Khan. “Soon, they will become neurons. You can inject it back. This will replace the damaged neurons. You can take fluid from the liver. It contains enzymes. Mix it with the stem cells and they will turn into liver cells. Put it back and your liver becomes healthy again.”
As to why all sorts of discoveries take place in the US and virtually nothing in India, the Hyderabad-born Khan says, “The USA is the richest country in the world. It is difficult to compare the two countries. On the first day I walked into the National Institute of Health, in December, 1971, I asked, ‘Where can I get my chemicals’.”
Immediately, his boss took Khan to a basement of a building. What Khan saw amazed him. “Every chemical known to man was placed on a table in an alphabetical order,” he says. “That day I realised that I am not going anywhere else. The NIH has a massive annual budget of $30 billion. This is just one institute. And there are so many others, like this.”
There are other advantages, too. “As a scientist, I have absolute freedom,” says Khan. “I don’t have to ask permission from anybody to do my research.”
Government officials did two things that took the worry away from Khan. They provided him with a five-star accommodation and gave Khan a government credit card. “I could use it in any way I wanted,” he says. “So, the worry for money was over. I could give my attention to my work, without any distractions.”
Interestingly, the discoveries that are made can be highly lucrative. For example, Noble Laureates Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen discovered
gene splicing, which allows scientists to manipulate the DNA of an organism. Their technique was the precursor of today’s massive genetic engineering industry. Last year, Boyer’s company Genentech made $62 billion in profits.
Finally, asked to visualise the world one hundred years from now, Khan says, “Man will easily live to a hundred years, because of good food and medicine. We will all have our personal genome done. This will be our medical record. It will be stored in a genetic chip. In case of emergency, we can get instant and accurate treatment. Lastly, there will be lots of space travel.”