Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan says, Ayurveda needs a science test

vrAyurveda and homoeopathy should not be treated in the same way. Ayurveda is a system of traditional medicine that is quite different from homoeopathy. Many of the Ayurveda remedies may be quite worth exploring.Ayurveda needs is to put its recipes to the scientific test. Medicine is not fussy about where good medicines come from. If they come from traditional medicine, like artemisinin, it doesn’t matter whether it is something traditional or modern.

Indian-origin Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan clubs astrology and homoeopathy as practices bereft of scientific evidence but asserts that although Ayurveda is different, it still needs to be put to scientific tests.

Ramakrishnan, who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize for chemistry for his contributions in unravelling the structure of ribosomes – biological machines that helps make proteins in cells – was in Delhi  to deliver a talk titled “On Nobody’s Word: Evidence and Modern Science”, hosted by the British Council.He dwelt on the emergence of modern scientific processes and explained how science differs from dogma because it seeks constant change as new facts emerge and old ideas are abandoned.

 On the sidelines of the talk, Ramakrishnan, who is president of the Royal Society and deputy director of the Laboratory for Molecular Biology, Cambridge, the UK, took three questions from The Telegraph on traditional medicine, the challenges to doing world-class science, and future applications of advances in biology.

Q: You’ve cited astrology and homoeopathy as examples of irrational or unfounded practices that persist in contemporary society. Homoeopathy and other traditional systems of medicine such as Ayurveda have a wide following in India. Does that worry you?

A: Most people don’t realise just how powerful the placebo effect is. Even with modern medicines, in some cases, the placebo effect can be even stronger than the effect of the medicine itself.

When a medicine is approved, it is because of the extra effect of the medicine over the placebo effect. Unless you do proper trials, it is difficult to say whether the effect is due to the medicine. If you do not have randomised controlled trials (on medicines), then you can never distinguish whether an effect is due to the placebo effect.

Ayurveda and homoeopathy should not be treated in the same way. Ayurveda is a system of traditional medicine that is quite different from homoeopathy. Many of the Ayurveda remedies may be quite worth exploring.

The Nobel Prize for medicine in 2015 went to a Chinese doctor who explored Chinese traditional medicine and put it to scientific test (and) isolated the active ingredient, in this case artemisinin, that has revolutionised the treatment of drug-resistant malaria.

What I think Ayurveda needs is to put its recipes to the scientific test. Medicine is not fussy about where good medicines come from. If they come from traditional medicine, like artemisinin, it doesn’t matter whether it is something traditional or modern.

That is what distinguishes medicine from alternative systems which don’t want to put things to test.

Q: Your work leading to the Nobel Prize and other work by Indian-origin scientists is at times cited as an indication of how scientists from India can excel in a western environment but not in an Indian environment. Do you believe there is merit in such views? Do you think the environment in India is not conducive to doing world-class science, either due to paucity of funds or other issues involving policies or decision-making?

A: In the past, funding may not have been comparable. But now, in good places at least, there is more money being put into science. There are places that are well equipped and can be competitive. And you can often do good science even with somewhat limited facilities by choosing problems carefully. You might not be able to do the same kinds of problems, but just as interesting problems.

The business of doing world-class science is more complicated. To do world-class science, you have to learn how to do that. If you’re choosing very difficult problems, it is not easy if you’re isolated.

Is a problem too difficult or is it doable? There is a fine balance between choosing something that is interesting but not ready for attack and something that is actually feasible given a certain approach. This requires critical feedback from colleagues and from mentors. And this kind of thing is very hard to build.

Even in the West, it is only a few institutions that do most of world-class science. The US has many institutions but the top world-class science gets done only in a fraction of those.

How do you start from scratch? You need one or two really good people who take it upon themselves to build up younger scientists around them.

Q: Since the human genome was sequenced, there has been much speculation about the emergence of personal genomic medicine. In some ways this has come true, such as helping optimise the treatment for certain cancers. But could you speculate on what kind of medical applications you expect will emerge over the next decade?

A: This is really not my area, but there is always a lag between fundamental discovery – even when people realise something is promising.

The cost of sequencing the genome has come down, and it has also become faster. It is really too early to tell (specifically), but once the cost of sequencing drops, you can map people’s susceptibility (to various medical disorders) and also the way they respond to various drugs. This will be a big change when it eventually happens, but there is always a lag.

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