Mycobacterium indicus pranii(MIP) is the name of the organism which drives the world’s first leprosy vaccine. The vaccine was developed in India. Last week saw it being launched as a pilot project. And the ‘pranii’ in the name comes from the name Gursharan Prasad Talwar- who is widely considered as the father of immunology in India. He is also the founder-director of the National Institutes of Immunology(NII).

‘My name is Pran’

“Pran was the name given to me by my mother who died eight days after I was born. My grandmother later took me to her spiritual guru who named me Gursharan Prasad. So I am G P in my academic records, but to all my friends and family, I am Pran,” says Talwar. Though 91 years old, he is still actively engaged professionally at his laboratory in Delhi.

But it’s not just the bit about the name which Talwar says in the way of interestingness. He also speaks about a day in 1970. If it hadn’t been for that day, Talways would have remained working in the biochemistry department of AIIMS, and the public health history would have been much poorer for that.

On the day in question, a group of immunologists from WHO walked into Talwar’s office in AIIMS and urged him to become the founder-director of the National Institute of Immunology- an autonomous research institution which would cater to the immunology requirements of southeast Asia.

Talwar wasn’t keen on the idea at first. “But then, they asked me, ‘Do you know India has the world’s largest number of leprosy patients? Do you expect Americans to come and solve your problems?’ I immediately signed the papers and agreed to join NII though I knew nothing really about the disease. I was not a doctor,” he says.

It was while he was at NII that the vaccine was developed first. The field trials were launched last week in two districts in Bihar and four in Gujarat. This comes over a decad after the Indian Council for Medical Research finished efficacy trials and Cadilla acquired the license for largescale manufacture of the vaccine.

It’s true that India has a tradition of being skeptical of homegrown vaccines. However, with new cases getting detected every year(plateauing at about 1.27 lakh every year) the government found the vaccine more than usable. If it clears the field trail, the vaccine would become part of the National Leprosy Education Programme.

‘Bringing up an entire generation of Indian immunologists’

Soumya Swaminathan, ICMR Director General and Secretary of the Department of Health Reserch has insights to add about Talwar: “Dr Talwar has brought up an entire generation of Indian immunologists. Most directors at immunology institutes in India today were either taught by him or mentored by him. He is the father of Indian immunology. The best thing about him is that he is an innovator, he has a passion for working on things that are of immediate importance in solving people’s problems. He takes on big challenges and continues to do that even today.”

As per Talwar, it was never easy to work on leprosy as someone from a non-medical background. However, after taking up the NII assignment on the disease, he decided that he should know all about leprosy. With a few of his students, he stayed at a leprosy patient’s home in Odisha so that he could understand the disease and its cause. “The first question we asked ourselves was this: All of us are exposed to Mycobacterium leprae (causative organism of leprosy). Why do we not get the disease then?” he says.

Eventually, it was realized that leprosy, like TB affects those with lowered immunity. Then , the task was to establish the required immune reaction to target M leprae- the bacteria which causes leprosy. Once that was done, the search began for an organism which could trigger the needed reaction within the body.

From the initial list of 16 non-pathogenic bacteria, five were shortlisted. The only one that wasn’t previously known was MIP. But it was what triggered the most potent reaction among T-cells to kill M leprae.

Though he has been honored by the government at Rajkot, Talwar voices a regret: “The vaccine is currently being given to people in contact with leprosy patients. But they should give it to patients too. That will shorten their period of recovery. I have been saying that for long now.”

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