What on earth is “ayurgenomics” anyway?

12 April 2014
Mitali Mukerji, whose team has conducted research into what they termed "ayurgenomics," at her lab in the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in Delhi.
Narendra Bisht / Outlook
Mitali Mukerji, whose team has conducted research into what they termed "ayurgenomics," at her lab in the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in Delhi.
Narendra Bisht / Outlook

In its 2014 election manifesto, the BJP showed signs of softening some of the hard edges of its right-wing credo, perhaps with the intention of winning over fence-sitting voters. The party renewed its pledge to build the controversial Ram temple in Ayodhya, but “within the framework of the constitution.” It reiterated its commitment to the abrogation of Article 370, but said it would “discuss this with all stakeholders.” The party also reaffirmed its intention to bolster Indian systems of medicine, but along with modern science and “ayurgenomics”—a word whose newfangled, oxymoronic timbre had even its own supporters reaching for Google.

Google, however, doesn’t yield a clear definition of ayurgenomics yet. Breaking the word down into its parts would suggest that it is an attempt to integrate the principles of ayurveda with genomics, the study of an organism’s genetic makeup. But the BJP’s deployment of the term is of a piece with its move to validate and promote ayurveda as a system of medicine no less legitimate or rational than orthodox medicine—part of its larger, continuing political project to bring Hindu ideas and practices into the mainstream.

Mitali Mukerji, principal scientist at Delhi’s Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, which falls under the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research (CISR), whose team coined the term and conducted the first study in the field, pleaded innocence of its political implications. “Frankly I am surprised that BJP’s manifesto should mention this word at all,” she said with a hint of nervousness when I spoke to her over the phone earlier this week. “I’m trained as a biologist but I am not embarrassed to say that I was genuinely curious about potential links between ayurveda and modern genetics’ understanding of body, disease and healing.”

Ayurveda classifies healthy individuals according to three doshas (broadly, energies)—vata, pitta and kapha. These doshas combine in varying degrees, with one usually dominant, resulting in an individual’s constitution, or prakriti. This classification system also determines an individual’s predisposition to disease and his or her response to drugs and the environment. In ayurveda, therapy is tailored to an individual’s physiology. In contrast, orthodox medicine treats all individuals as healthy, and generally not predisposed to disease, until they contract one. Orthodox medicine also regards all individuals as identical when it comes to treating a disease.

Mukerji and her co-researchers, in particular Bhavana Prasher, who has a doctorate in ayurveda, wanted to find out if the ayurvedic classification of individuals according to prakriti type was reflected at the level of genes. For their first study, which began in 2002, they took a sample of 96 unrelated healthy individuals, all from north India, with a predominance of either vata, pitta or kapha. According to Mukerji, when they tested the subjects’ blood samples for various biochemical and genetic markers, they found striking differences corresponding to the different prakriti types. The team’s findings have been published in internationally reputed journals, including ACS Chemical Biology and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. “These results suggest that it might be possible to combine ayurveda and genomics to not only predict a individual’s susceptibility to disease but at the same time offer a personalised therapy to every individual,” Mukerji claimed.

Rakesh Kalshian is a Delhi-based writer on science, environment and development. 

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