Nepali Times
New firm pioneers DNA testing

When chicken started dying in poultry farms in Jhapa earlier this month, the government sent swab samples to the UK for tests to confirm if this was indeed an outbreak of bird flu. The tests were positive.

In future, tests for the H5N1 avian flu virus can be done in Nepal itself, saving not just money but also time so emergency services can be deployed faster.

Detection and quantification of viral infections can now be done in Nepal's first private state-of-the-art laboratory that can carry out diagnostics at a molecular level. Intrepid Medtech Nepal, a biotechnology company based in Canada and Nepal, has just set up its facility in Thapthali.

"What happened in India with IT can be made to happen in Nepal with biotech research," says Dibesh Karmacharya, a Canada-based Nepali scientist who heads Intrepid Medtech. "We aim to bring cutting-edge biotechnology tools
to diagnose and treat diseases in developing countries."

This is the first time in Nepal that diagnostics can be done at the DNA level for infections prevalent in Nepal, like HIV, TB, hepatitis, leprosy, bird flu and other diseases. Intrepid Medtech can also carry out paternity and forensic DNA testing. The company also works with the non-profit Centre for Molecular Dynamics Nepal (CMDN) to carry out epidemiological research for infectious diseases in Nepal.

One key equipment at the centre can carry out real time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) that can amplify a specific part of a DNA molecule for testing. The test can more precisely and quickly diagnose HIV, and even indicate the strain and substrains of the virus?making anti-retroviral treatment easier.

At present Nepali patients on anti-retroviral drugs have to send their blood samples to India or Thailand, or go there themselves, to test for viral loads and figure out how well their treatment is going. Now it can all be done in Nepal.

"No longer do you have to wait for the body to produce anti-bodies to detect a disease we can detect the virus itself. This makes diagnosis speedy and specific," explains Sameer Dixit, Karmacharya's partner at Intrepid. The company can diagnose and quantify most common infections in Nepal, including the Human Pappilloma Virus (HPV) which causes cervical cancer and is the largest killer of Nepali women of reproductive age.The Centre for Molecular Dynamics Nepal, meanwhile, has been training communities in detection of bird flu,testing street children for HIV and detecting the strain variation of HIV in Nepal. Working with the Intrepid lab, the Centre will soon be testing a portable HIV monitoring device called CD4 in western Nepal.

Karmacharya is a biology graduate of St Xavier's College in Kathmandu and went on for further studies in the United States. He then worked at Princeton University and for the healthcare division of General Electric. He now lives
in Canada.

Asked what brought him back to Nepal when most compatriots are desperate to immigrate, Karmacharya answers matter-of-factly: "It's love of country. I want to do my bit for Nepal."

Karmacharya and Dixit, who both quit their jobs to start the biotech company, say they have both taken a calculated risk. Working on epidemiological research and diagnostics in Nepal has its challenges.

"A lot of the baseline prevalence surveys have never been done. We want to find out which diseases are where and which populations are more susceptible so that public health strategies can be planned," says Karmacharya.

But most days, they have mundane worries. "Sixty percent of the time we have to think about ways to work around electricity and water shortages," says Dixit, "but this is pioneering work and it is very rewarding."

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)