Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST)
Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST)

Setback powers Keralite scientist to dream bigger

Inventors do not face capital issues in countries like the US, according to Anjaly.

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: An at-home male fertility test for just Rs 10: That was the dream of three Keralite scientists who developed a ‘revolutionary’ kit in 2014. But, as it turned out Dr Kuruvilla Joseph, Dr Anjaly Vijayan and Dr Vidya Raj were unable to turn their breakthrough into a viable product.   

The invention could not be commercialised because of the legal constraints involved: It was developed in the laboratory of the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST), which is categorised as a sensitive and strategic organisation. Kuruvilla and Vidya were IIST faculty members and the kit was Anjaly’s internship project. An at-home male fertility test kit now costs between Rs 1,500-3,500.

“It was a crushing blow for us. It was probably the first-of-its-kind in the world and low production cost was the highlight,” recollects Anjaly. “It gave me a sort of realisation that I should look for a more inventor-friendly environment. Our idea could not see the light of day, but that was my ‘passport’ to the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine,” said the 30-year-old.

Anjaly now heads a research team at the University of Pennsylvania’s (UPenn) School of Medicine that is working on an enhanced version of a smartphone-based Covid test they had developed earlier. “The technique is called micro bubbling. A person’s swab is placed on a microfluidic chip and its photograph is taken using a mobile app. The app will measure the size and number of micro-bubbles in the swab and determine the presence of a virus. The existing test is an antigen test and we are developing a more sensitive molecular device having an accuracy on par with the PCR test,” Anjaly said.

Smartphone-based diagnostic and clinical techniques have a robust future, she feels. “This is a cutting-edge technology that has tremendous potential in point-of-care diagnostics, especially in third-world countries, where sophisticated instruments are not easily accessible,” she says.

Anjaly, who hails from Alappuzha, left her full-time job at the School of Medicine last year to join Zoetis -- formerly Pfizer Animal Health -- as a senior scientist. But she still volunteers on the UPenn team
Science students in Kerala are largely unaware of the huge research possibilities in countries like the US, says Anjaly.

“Several universities abroad offer scholarships that cover education, health and living expenses. A good grade in the qualifying degree or publications and research experience with reputed labs will help secure them. Institutions like the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) have good labs,” she says.

Inventors do not face capital issues in countries like the US, according to Anjaly.“If you have a good idea, companies are ready to fund even before the prototype stage. Industry will accord you all support, including good lab facilities,” says Anjaly, who is also passionate about travelling.

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