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Tuesday, Feb 26, 2002

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Southern stands out in a crowd

M. Somasekhar


IT'S not often that a scientist whose name becomes synonymous with a discovery or invention that has wide ranging applications comes to town. Add to this, the fact that he has won a major patent battle against a multinational and you have the ingredients of an exciting encounter.

One such rare event took place in the city, when Prof. Edward M. Southern, from Oxford, UK, renowned for the `Southern Blot' test used widely in modern genetics, addressed scientists and young researchers at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB).

Just like the Raman Effect and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle in Physics, Malthusian Proportions in Economics and Moore's Law in Computing, Southern Blot has become part of the vocabulary in biology, explained P.M. Bhargava, well-known Indian scientist.

Not only is Southern's work the second most cited but it has also revolutionised modern biology, unleashing a range of micro-array techniques that are being used to unravel the mysteries locked up in our genes.

The Southern Blot test, which captured the attention of researchers in the mid-1970s, can simply be described as a technique (read probe) that can be targeted to detect an individual gene in a crowd of DNA molecules. In other words, it can help rapidly detect genes that could be responsible for a disease or infection, say HIV or AIDS, diabetes, etc.

By the mid-1990s, the contributions of Southern were widespread in modern biology, especially Genomics. So much so that the US-based Affymetrix obtained a patent on his DNA Chip technology, forcing him into a legal battle with the full backing of the Oxford University. After a protracted legal engagement, which dragged on for nearly 30 months, the humbled multinational conceded defeat in March 2001; Southern won the rights on the DNA Micro-array technique.

The applications of micro-array technology are "unlimited". Broadly, it can be useful in drug discovery, development of diagnostics, basic research and understanding diseases, Southern told Business Line in an interview.

There are nearly 30-40 small players in the area of manufacturing equipment and arrays and big corporates such as Motorola, Agilent and Affymetrix, in addition to Japanese and Korean, making the field very fast growing, he said.

The second category of companies is the service providers. Since the equipment and technology are both expensive and difficult, the scope for the emergence of corporates offering data on Genomics is good. In fact, a spin-off company, Oxford Gene Technology, of the Oxford University is all set to offer genomic data for academic and commercial purposes, Southern said.

"We are open to joint collaborative work with India," Southern said. The first centre for Micro-array technology or DNA Chip has been established at the CCMB recently with the active collaboration with Biological E and Amersham.

Southern is also visiting a few institutes, especially those involved in crop improvement to find takers for hi-tech facilities existing in the UK on behalf of a research trust of Oxford called Kirkhouse. "The idea is to support research activity from India," he said.

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