For the next thirty years, 10,000 employees of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) will likely be tracked for most of their working lives as part of an initiative to track an array of health-vitals and genes. The over-arching aim is to be able to build a medical cohort to give long-term perspective on the malaises that affect Indians and determine if such a databank can be used to help with predicting, say, the onset of diabetes or cardiovascular disease.
“We’ve been thinking about this for a year and then COVID-19 struck. So we thought this would be good time to begin by checking for antibodies and along with that other health parameters,” said Director-General, CSIR Shekhar Mande. “A long-term cohort can be invaluable in answering several public-health questions and many of our 10,000-odd employees are expected to be with us for a long time and so can be reliably followed and monitored. This will, of course, be optional and with their full ethical consent.”
Long-term cohorts while few aren’t entirely new in India. The Vadu Rural Health Programme, run by the KEM Hospital Research Centre in Pune, in nearby Vadu village has been tracking a cohort of patients since 2002 and monitoring births, deaths, causes of death and migrations. GARBH-ini is also a cohort in Gurugram, Haryana, that started in 2015 and tracks epidemiological, genomic and microbial parameters of pregnant women to, among other things, ascertain the causes of pre-term birth.
However, a great challenge of long term cohorts is sustaining the programme and keeping participants and managers incentivised and motivated. The CSIR’s bet is that their employees, by virtue of being committed to a long-term job and availing of the organisation’s health care benefits are likely to see benefits in sticking to the programme.
“The interesting aspect of a CSIR cohort is that it would be fairly representative of a spectrum of middle class India. We could give them smart watches or other devices that can track health parameters and we will track variations in specific genes, known to be correlated to certain diseases, that can help predict the likelihood of disease,” said Dr Anurag Agrawal, Director, CSIR-Institute of Genomic and Integrative Biology, who is spear-heading the project.
To address the challenge of longevity, Dr. Agrawal said he has already identified a younger generation of scientists who are likely to keep the project going as well as have different institutions engaged, to ensure that there is an incentive to stay invested. The proposed budget for the programme is ₹100 crore for the next five years, he added.
The CSIR-IGIB specialises in sequencing genomes and identifying genetic variations in populations that are linked to health and disease. So far, said Dr. Agrawal, only blood samples had been collected though depending on how the project unfolded and the kind of research questions that emerged, other biological samples — urine, saliva — could also be collected. “It's very early but as of now it's only employees and their spouses. We are not including their children.”