Off My Chest


YK Hamied is the Managing Chairman of Cipla, a company that has made its name in the low cost AIDS treatment for poor countries. During his travel in South Africa, Hamied came across the Lung Institute at the University of Cape Town, an institute doing stellar work in the field of pulmonary health for Africa. The institute had been initiated by Boehringer Ingelheim, a pharma company which had a good presence in the respiratory disease market. Hamied decided that Cipla needs to do something similar in India. So they went about scouting for a leader who could set up a similar facility in India. In their talent hunt they came across, Sundeep Salvi, a Vincentian who went on to BJ Medical for his MBBS, followed it up with an MD and a Ph.D. in Asthma at the UK.

Sundeep saw this as an opportunity to continue his research – in the serene environments of his home town, Pune and took up the offer. He started and runs the Chest Research Foundation which is located at Kalyani nagar. CRF started with Cipla’s philanthropy, but is no longer solely dependent on them for funds. It earns revenues conducting training programs, but more so from conducting clinical trials for new drugs. These revenues are used for doing basic research, especially in Indian and Asian environments.

Before we go into the medical research that goes on at CRF, it would be a good idea becoming familiar with what research is. One of Sundeep’s life missions is to encourage school students to take up a career in research. Our educational system has only taught us to give answers. He likes to quote a Chinese Proverb “One who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; one who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.” Hidden within each unanswered question lies the root of discovery. Knowledge comes by never being afraid or ashamed to ask questions about anything of which we are ignorant.

In the 18th century, small pox was a major killer. (In India people turned to a special Goddess to cure people of the pox – Sitala Devi). Edward Jenner, a physician and scientist, was one day casually told by his Milk maid that those who had cow pox did not develop small pox. Jenner injected pus from cow pox victims to a few volunteers, who developed immunity to small pox. In Latin, the word vacca means cow. This was the beginning for vaccination.

Some of the significant discoveries in medicine have been made by people who did not train as doctors, but who were ready to ask questions. A herb that grows in the rain forests of South America Peruvian Province of Quito, was used by the Indians who had to cross the river with water up to the neck. To prevent the shivering in cold water, they consumed a concoction of the bark of this herb in warm water. Jesuit priests who saw this, experimented to see if it prevents the shivering caused by Malaria, and it did. This was the beginning of the end for malaria.

You don’t have to be an expert in the field to make discoveries. John Dunlop, you may know, is the inventor of the pneumatic tyre. Not too many of you may be knowing that he is a surgeon! He developed the first practical inflatable tyre for his son’s tricycle, fitting it to a wooden disc 96 cm across in the yard of his home in Belfast. The tyre was an inflated tube of sheet rubber. He then took his wheel and a metal wheel from his son’s tricycle and rolled both across the yard together. The metal wheel stopped rolling but the pneumatic continued until it hit a gatepost and rebounded. Dunlop then put pneumatics on both rear wheels of the tricycle. That too rolled better and Dunlop moved on to larger tyres for a bicycle. This was the beginning of the the tyre industry.

Here is an interesting research project done by college students at Purdue University, who were very concerned about their cell phone batteries draining out fast. The following are the usual sources of battery drain:

  • GPS
  • WiFi
  • Blue Tooth
  • Screen light
  • Videos Played
  • Temperature
  • Number of applications running at background

Most of the popular apps are games of some kind. The students researched Angry Birds, and found that 75% of the App’s energy consumption goes in powering the free advertisements. Only 20% of the energy is used to play the game. 45% of energy goes in finding out your location, with which it can serve targeted advertising.

Now coming back to the medical research at CRF. Pulmonary disease ranks above cancer in terms of cause for death. In a country like India – without realizing it – we suffer more from indoor pollution than outdoor. And all this is not just limited to the mother who does the cooking. The pollutants get transferred even to the child in her womb. So when her child enters the world, she is primed up for Pneumonia, Ashtma and small lung volumes.

Sundeep mentioned an interesting medical concept – the Heart Rate Variability. The lower the variability the higher the chances of a heart attack. In non-statistical language, this means that it is good to have a heart which beats at varying rates. If the rate becomes too constant, then you are in trouble. Heart Rate Variability gets affected by indoor pollution, including stir-frying. Even damp walls cause indoor pollution through spores released by fungi that grow on the wall.

Here are two interesting projects that the CRF team has done. Research was done by a young medico who surveyed more than fifty temples in Pune and did medical check-ups of the pujaris who work there. As expected, none of them were smokers, but as not expected, 25% of them suffered from chest disease. The culprit – agarbattis. In fact Sundeep calls agarbattis as the biggest enemy of the lung in terms of tar content.

Another team measured the tar given out by burning a Tortoise mosquito coil in a room with closed doors and window. The burning of one coil (made up of coal dust, coconut husk and resins) generated tar which is equivalent to the smoking of 100 cigarettes! The liquid repellants are only marginally better. When I asked Sundeep, what does he do at his house, he mentioned: ‘I am myself asthmatic. (Note from author: And an expert in Asthma research. Wow!) If a liquid repellant is switched on anywhere in the house, my lungs notice it in a matter of minutes. What I use, and also recommend, is the old fashioned mosquito net.’ Would like to end with a quote that Sundeep likes to use: Discovery is seeing what everybody has seen, but thinking what nobody has thought.

You can visit Sundeep and CRF at