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Seyed Ehtesham Hasnain: scientist who changed the course of TB diagnosis in India

Saquib Salim

Prof Seyed Ehtesham Hasnain’s scientific research has changed the complicated regimen for the diagnosis of Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis and the Indian Basmati getting its patent and trademark in the UK in the fight against the Pakistani variant. This Bihar-born scientists’ findings have saved patients suffering from Drug-Resistant TB money and time and helped the Indian government and farmers earn through exports of the Basmati.

He told Awaz-the Voice in an interview that the government of India has taken at least two major policy decisions based on his research. “One decision was that previously the testing of tuberculosis (TB) was based upon antibody-antigen reaction. So, the antibody formed was based on the antigen of a bacterial protein, and the sequence (genetic) used was mostly European or American isolates. 

“When I did sequencing in India, I found out that the Indian variant is completely different. Therefore, the test could give false positives or negatives…. I published this finding and had a meeting with the DG of ICMR (Indian Council for Medical Research) and recommended that the tests based on foreign kits be banned and that made a big impact.” 

Seyed Ehtesham Hasnain receiving Padma Shri from President dr APJ Abdul Kalam

Padma Shri recipient Seyed Ehtesham Hasnain said. E. Hasnain was awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the highest Civilian decoration of Germany in 2014. Nature, a famous scientific journal, reported on his receiving the award, “With the Order of Merit, he joins the league of outstanding personalities from various fields including Nobel laureate biologist Paul Herman Muller, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and music conductor John Crosby.” 

In 2006, he received Padma Shri in recognition of his scientific work. Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize (1995) and J. C. Bose Fellowship (2006), two of the most prestigious Indian Awards in the field of science have also come his way apart from numerous other decorations.

Hasnain was born in Gaya, Bihar in 1954. He was born seven years after India had attained independence. At that time Bihar was not the most developed of the Indian states. Hasnain’s father was a college lecturer and he nursed a dream of studying abroad. He studied at the Nazareth Academy, an expensive school in the town. It’s said that almost 20% of his father’s salary would go into children’s school fees. 

He did his M.Sc. from the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. However, though he was selected for his post-graduation studies by Harvard University, for some reason he could not join.


In 1981, Hasnain moved to Canada as a Post-doctoral Fellow (PDF). He worked in Canada and the USA for the next six years. At this stage, his father asked him to return home to serve his country and people. He was advised by many people that he must try to get his green card before moving back to India. 


In 1987, he joined the National Institute of Immunology (NII) as a scientist. Hasnain says, “I thought that after getting a green card, I would have a fall-back and a plan B. I did not want a plan B. My plan was the only plan A. I will work in India and do something good in India.”

Hasnain broke the convention by not continuing the research he was doing abroad. He started afresh and soon made a name for himself in research of baculoviruses. He established a baculovirus insect cell expression system (BEVS) for the first time in India and used this to express foreign genes and also to ask fundamental questions concerning gene expression in BEVS. The idea was to make India a scientific power.

Hasnain says that when his career was at the peak with research on baculovirus one day, Dr. Sandeep Basu, the then director of NII, asked him, “Seyed, you are publishing in good journals, it is fine, but how does humanity benefit? What is India gaining out of it? How are the common men benefiting from your papers? Doing research is good but do something which will benefit the common man.” 


This was the turning point in Hasnain’s life and career. He says “I decided to do something where I can do direct application.” He started his research on tuberculosis. 


Hasnain initiated studies on molecular epidemiology and genetics of multi-drug resistant (MDR) M. tuberculosis (M.tb). He says, “second important observation that was published, again first time in the world. We used to test TB for drug resistance. The bacteria was tested against each drug. I showed with my study that if the bacteria are resistant to one drug then it will be resistant to almost all other drugs. I established the correlation and proposed that you don’t need to do multi-drug resistance testing for all the drugs. Just test one drug rifampicin and if it is confirmed then 95%-99% of drugs will be resisted by the bacteria. That has become a standard treatment all over the world. He is still working on developing cheaper methods of diagnosing TB.

In 1999 Hasnain was invited as the first director of the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics (CDFD), Hyderabad. It was based on his work on Indian Basmati Rice DNA fingerprinting that India won the Patent case against Pakistan enabling the export of the Indian Basmati to the UK. This prevented a major economic loss to India. Subsequently, the Ministry of Commerce established the CDFD-APEDA Basmati DNA Analysis Centre, where all Basmati exports are certified. 

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Hasnain also served as Vice Chancellor of the University of Hyderabad (2005-11), and Vice Chancellor of Hamdard University and is currently A National Science Chair of SERB, at the Department of Biochemical Engineering and Biotechnology at IIT-Delhi. 

Hasnain Mantra is: “Nothing is a substitute for hard work.”       

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