When it comes to U.S.-based philanthropy toward anything from health to clean energy, a lot of eyes are on India and its explosive development. In the case of a recent $70 million research grant in genetics, however, one Indian funder has its eye on San Diego, California.
The donation from the Tata Trusts, one of India’s most influential philanthropic outfits, will expand on groundbreaking work happening at the University of California-San Diego related to active genetics and the so-called gene drive, which allows scientists to ensure inheritance of specific genes. Half of the grant backs research at UCSD, while the other half will establish a counterpart unit in India, with training and transfer of knowledge built in.
The donation is unique in a lot of ways, with motivations and benefits spanning research, industry, global development, and even scrutiny on the ethics of genetic editing.
For starters, there’s the fact that the grant amount is split across the Pacific, linking up top Indian researchers with those in California. This is the largest foreign investment to date in UCSD, and while the trusts’ Chairman Ratan Tata did give $50 million to Harvard in 2010, the Tata Trusts typically support work in India. A powerhouse of three philanthropic funds, the trusts have been giving to a wide variety of programs across the country for more than 100 years now.
But in a tour of UCSD, the chair was struck by the research happening there, particularly the active genetics work of Ethan Bier and Valentino Gantz, who developed a way to rapidly spread specific genetic traits. The team made headlines when it demonstrated in lab experiments the potential to breed mosquitoes that don’t spread malaria. There are other possible applications related to fighting disease and breeding more resistant crops.
While the grant will boost the university, the benefits are clear for India as well, where malaria is an acute problem, as is hunger in a rapidly growing population. There’s also potential for economic growth in India, which has a growing biotech sector, as well as a larger research benefit of cultivating bright minds in more locations.
The grant demonstrates an interest on the part of the Tata Trusts to pursue some bold ideas for public health and development in India. Genetics is a massive topic in research right now, as it is in philanthropy, as donors are excited by increased understanding of how disorders from autism to anorexia are tied to our genetic makeup.
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But there’s also still quite a lot of trepidation surrounding genetics and gene editing. Controversy has followed gene drive technology as well, even as it relates to altering mosquitoes.
In an attempt to ground these rapid developments in genetics, the grant will call upon the humanities and social sciences to develop ethical guidance related to bioscience and applications in health, agriculture and the environment. Hopefully that will add a healthy dose of “should we” amid the “could we.”