Kolkata: India became the world's third country with the prowess to manufacture raw materials for nanomedicines, addressed a growing public health concern by approving a new drug for hepatitis C and made strides in 3D printing in healthcare as 2015 ended on a cliff-hanger with the launch of the world's first anti-dengue vaccine in Mexico giving hope to the South Asian country.
India was hit hard by dengue cases this year while the Mexican government gave the green signal to the world's first anti-dengue vaccine, called Dengvaxia, developed by France-based Sanofi Pasteur. It may however be quite a while before Indians have access to it.
"The vaccine is currently in the third phase of clinical study. At present, only the Mexican government has approved it. This vaccine has still not been approved globally but if it passes the third phase it will get the required approval," Rajesh Kumar, senior consultant (internal medicine), Paras Hospital, Gurgaon, told IANS on the phone.
The total number of dengue cases in Delhi reached over 12,000 in October. The city recorded the highest number of patients of the viral disease in 19 years.
Climate change was one of the reasons attributed to by researchers for this surge and continuance of the disease into the winter months.
While the wait is on for India to give its nod for the vaccine, the nation gave a breather to patients of chronic hepatitis C with the Drug Controller General of India okaying the launch of generic hepatitis-C drug Harvoni by two Indian drug makers.
It is estimated that 12-18 million patients are infected with hepatitis C in India.
Looking back, the country also made good on its attempts to harness the power of the small: nanotechnology.
It entered the select league of nations (the US and Ireland) which have the technology to manufacture raw material for generating nano-crystal based medicines.
The National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research (NIPER), Mohali, designed and licensed the technology for producing nano-crystal based medicines that could bring down costs.
Drugs in the form of these nanoparticles with crystalline characters, act faster and are more efficient than conventional ones. Dubbed NanoCrySP, the solid dispersions are water soluble and, therefore, easily absorbed.
NIPER has already got an Indian patent for the technology and has now applied for the US and European patents.
Apart from nanotechnology, examples of use of 3D printing of prosthetics, implants and surgical aids signalled the next wave of innovation in India.
In 3D printing, successive layers of material are laid down under computer control. Thanks to a Mumbai-based company, a 3D printed heart model aided experts in the surgery of a two-month old baby with a difficult form of heart disease earlier this year.
Led by the Narendra Modi government's Make in India campaign, the US-based Stratasys, the world's largest 3D printing company, set up its India operations to tap into the growing manufacturing activity.
India's potential in this sector has been vouched for by Dutch orthopaedic bio-engineering expert Nico Verdonschot, a foreign faculty member for India's Global Initiative of Academic Networks (GIAN) programme, who said the country's technical capabilities could augment the 3D printing sector for profitably manufacturing implants.
Another area where researchers and doctors were active is the application of light-based technologies and photonics in cancer screening and diagnosis.
While the US and countries in Europe, such as Germany, have already made a mark in this field, India is waking up to it, given the increasing incidences of cancer, according to Nirmalya Ghosh, who heads IISER-Kolkata's Bio Optics and Nano Photonics (BioNaP) group, one of the few teams in the country to work on such techniques.
(The premier Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research are spread across seven locations in the country.)
Incidentally, 2015 which happened to be the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies, also saw researchers in India and the US testing a handy solar-powered device for early detection of oral cancer which could be integrated with mobile technology, enabling faster and accurate diagnostics in rural areas.
In its race to the top, India's department of biotechnology announced it plans to scale up start-ups in the biotechnology sector to at least 1,500 in the next two to three years to boost technological interventions in the health and agriculture sectors.
A US report earlier this year also brought cheers to people who had been avoiding high-cholesterol foods such as eggs or butter in the fear of hurting their heart health. A top nutrition advisory committee said that people, except those with certain health problems such as diabetes, no longer have to be worried about eating foods that are high in cholesterol.
The committee's report will help shape the next version of the US Dietary Guidelines, set to be released later this year.
The year just ending was also remarkable as for the first time in 30 years researchers discovered a new antibiotic named teixobactin. The new compound, which is expected to be available for use within five years, could play a major role in the fight against bacterial infections such as tuberculosis (TB). It could also lead to antibiotics that are likely to avoid development of resistance.
This discovery could have major implications for India, as according to a report published earlier this year in The BMJ, each year, India has 2.2 million new cases, more than 300,000 deaths, and economic losses of $23 bn from TB, making it India's biggest health crisis.
(With inputs from Gokul Bhagabati in New Delhi. This is part of a series of articles from IANS that look back at the year that was for a variety of subjects, running up to the New Year. Sahana Ghosh can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)