What on earth is “ayurgenomics” anyway?

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
12 April, 2014

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.

But although they may sound path-breaking, Mukerji’s findings have not provoked any debate among her genomics research peers. An online search for the word ayurgenomics throws up Mukerji’s own articles, papers based on her study and sympathetic articles by ayurvedic physicians or researchers who have collaborated with her. A blistering attack on scienceblogs.com rubbishes her study as an “abuse of genomics,” challenging her claims, such as the one that ayurveda had “fueled many drug discovery approaches.”

Mukerji puts the lack of interest and the attacks down to a “deep-seated prejudice” against non-Western disciplines such as ayurveda. In its defence, she cited ancient medical texts by Charaka, commonly known as the “father of Indian medicine” and one of the earliest proponents of ayurveda, and, perhaps unwittingly echoing the declamations of Hindu revivalists, suggested that “in all probability the pioneers of ayurveda knew about modern concepts such as genes, proteins and microbes.” She added: “We can’t just rubbish something that’s been in practice for over 5,000 years. Please read the ancient Sanskrit text before you pooh-pooh them.”

But does she believe in ayurveda’s theoretical basis, founded on the three doshas, akin to the ancient Western medicine's now rejected model of the four humours? “Although I am trained as a molecular biologist, I was always open-minded about various forms of knowledge so long as they were objectively examined,” she said, fumbling a little while articulating her delicately poised stance. “I won’t say I fully endorse ayurveda but I am willing to give it the benefit of doubt.”

While one wishes her ideas provoked more reaction from the generally timid Indian science community, Mukerji is unfazed by the silence about her work among her peers. She told me she has a substantial CSIR grant, whose quantum she declined to disclose, which will keep her ideas alive for at least the next five years—she is currently repeating her first study in five different regions in the country. While the BJP’s stamp of approval may yield more resources for her to pursue her ideas, her future work could also run the risk of being damaged in the crossfire between the left-wing groups and the Hindu right.

It is too early to celebrate Mukerji’s hypothesis, or to extend it to any broader scientific approval of ayurveda. Conversely, it is also perhaps a little premature to condemn it as pure bunkum. For now, she only claims to have established “proof of concept”—the potential use of an idea or theory. The results of her study will have to verified or falsified by her peers before they can acquire any currency. “I feel emboldened as a couple of adventurous Western scientists have offered to collaborate with us on this idea,” she said.“I just want to ensure that my research is rigorous by modern scientific standards, so that my peers, instead of dismissing it, can review and verify it on their own.”

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