Dr. Ashoke Banerji has spent a lifetime working with plants, in order to understand and harness their medicinal properties for use to humankind. He is Distinguished Professor at the School of Biotechnology, having come to Amrita after a brilliant research career at institutions such as the Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC) in Mumbai and National Institute of Interdisciplinary Sciences and Technology (NIST) at Trivandrum. In the past, he has worked with Nobel Laureates such as Derek Barton and Ernst Chain. He has published over 200 research papers and has three patents to his credit.
“Plants were always a passion for me,” he says. At BARC, he headed the Bio-Organic Division for many years. He worked with Himalayan plants obtained from DRDO’s Field Research Laboratory (FRL) in Leh; work that he continues till today. He narrates the story about how he got an opportunity to work with the FRL. “Before Dr. Abdul Kalam became President of India, he was Scientific Advisor to the Indian Government. Sometime then, in the late 1990s, I traveled to Delhi to meet him. I told him about my interest in the seabuckthorn plant, and the many possibilities for research.”
Abdul Kalam had headed DRDO in the past; he was familiar with the work done at that FRL. In addition to carrying out research in agriculture and animal husbandry to supply army needs at those altitudes, the center also manufactured a multi-vitamin herbal beverage from the seabuckthorn plant. These berries were known for their hemostatic and anti-inﬂammatory effects and were added to traditional medications for pulmonary, gastrointestinal, cardiac, blood, and metabolic disorders. At that time, nutraceuticals was a new and emerging industry and Dr. Banerji saw immense possibilities.
Nutraceuticals (as opposed to pharmaceuticals) include health foods, dietary supplements, and herbal products. Today the global nutraceutical market today is estimated at $68 billion. India’s share of this global market is miniscule. “Although we have a wealth of traditional knowledge, when it comes to making products, we lag behind,” Dr. Banerji ruefully remarks. The nutraceutical raw materials may be sourced from India but due to regulatory confusion and lack of adequate awareness, Indian companies have been slow to take advantage of this opportunity.
“Make arrangements for Dr. Banerji to go to Leh immediately,” Dr. Kalam instructed his staff. Thus began an association that continues till today. All over the world today, research is ongoing into the phytochemical and nutrient constituents of seabuckthorn, and its potential use to help with inflammatory disorders, cancer, and other diseases. A few nutraceutical products made in China and Russia from this plant have even been brought to market. Dr. Banerji’s dream is to see India eventually emerge as a leader in this field. He sees immense possibilities for collaboration with the nearby School of Ayurveda, as well as the Center for Nanotechnology and the School of Medicine at the healthcare campus in Kochi.
Several doctoral students assist with Dr. Banerji’s research work. Work is also currently ongoing on two additional projects which involve the bioprospection of indigenous flora of Kerala and phytochemical investigation of the Himalayan rhodiola plant. “A single plant may contain as many as 200,000 compounds,” Dr. Banerji explains. “To me, each plant is like a factory of nature that produces precious compounds. We isolate these compounds and study them. I would call this phyto-technology; tapping into the vast treasures of plants.”
January 25, 2009
School of Biotechnology, Amritapuri