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As a young girl, Jennifer Doudna was fascinated by science — mostly how evolution shaped plants and animals to adapt to the Hawaiian landscape that was her home — but the first time she heard the word “biochemistry” was in high school.

A woman researcher from a cancer centre was giving a talk at the University of Hawaii where Doudna’s father taught. Doudna didn’t understand much about the research, but a world of possibilities opened up for her.

“I had never seen a woman in a role like hers, it wasn’t something you saw in popular culture at the time. I remember thinking, ‘I want to be her. I want to do what she does.’ If I hadn’t seen the woman, I probably would not have realised that being a scientist was a possibility,” Doudna told TOI.

‘I’m excited about the prospect of using CRISPR as a diagnostic tool’

The 56-year-old biochemist shares the prestigious award with French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier for their work on CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) technology. This is the first time a women-only team has won a Nobel science prize.

But when the University of California Berkeley professor got the call in the middle of the night, her first reaction was confusion. “It was a reporter looking for a comment on the Nobel Prize win. I asked her ‘Who won?’ That was embarrassing,” she said.

Since 2012 — when in a landmark paper, Doudna and Charpentier had explored the potential of CRISPR-Cas 9 system as a genome editing tool — the technology has developed quickly. “CRISPR technology gives researchers the ability to edit DNA, the code of life. The biggest surprise to me has been just how widely, and quickly, CRISPR has been used in ways I never would have imagined at the start. An example is how CRISPR has been used recently to study the patterns of colours on butterfly wings.”

Doudna remains a vocal proponent for the ethical use of genome editing technology. “The bottom line is that we simply do not yet understand well enough how CRISPR genome editing works in human embryos to use it safely. Research needs to be transparent and help educate to prevent abuse of the technology, but it also needs to provide the context for development of international standards that can inform appropriate regulation and enforcement of responsible use around the world,” she said.

While the Nobel Prize gives Doudna and Charpentier recognition as pioneers of CRISPR, bitter wars over ownership of patents covering the technology continue in courts. But that’s a matter for lawyers, said Doudna. Her focus, she said, is on pushing the limits of the technology to solve real-world problems such as hunger, climate change and, recently, Covid-19.

“I’m excited about the prospects of using CRISPR as a diagnostic tool and there has been a lot of interest in this for Covid-19 and future pandemics. The polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based tests for Covid-19 are extremely sensitive, but they are slow and expensive. CRISPR-based tests should, in the very near future, be a powerful new tool for doctors.” Notably, India has already developed a CRISPR-based ‘Feluda’ test for Covid that changes colour on detection of the Sars-Cov-2 virus.

Doudna hopes that her winning the Nobel Prize shows young women that a career in science is a real possibility. “While the prize to an all-women team is certainly a step in the right direction, there is still a lot of inequality in the way we train, hire and reward people in the sciences. Getting girls into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) takes representation, it takes real-life examples and investment in early education for girls.”

The Times of India is an Indian English-language daily newspaper owned by The Times Group. It is the third-largest newspaper in India by circulation and largest selling English-language daily in the world. according to Audit Bureau of Circulations.

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INDIA

‘It’s unfortunate’: Rahul Gandhi on Kamal Nath’s ‘item’ remark

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NEW DELHI: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Tuesday said that he does not approve of the ‘item’ remark made by former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nath against state minister Imarti Devi. In the backdrop of the intense criticism faced by Congress for the senior leader’s allegedly sexist remarks, Rahul said it was “unfortunate”.

“Kamal Nath ji is from my party but personally, I don’t like the type of language that he used…I don’t appreciate it, regardless of who he is. It is unfortunate,” said Gandhi while addressing a press briefing in Wayanad.

Former chief minister Kamal Nath referred to Imarti Devi as an “item” at an election meeting in the Dabra (scheduled caste) assembly constituency in Gwalior district, sparking a controversy on Sunday.

“Suresh Raje ji hamare ummeedvar hai…yeh uske jaise nah hai…kya hai uska naam … main kya uska naam lun? …apko toh mujhe pehle savdhan karna chahiye tha … yeh kya item hai… (Our candidate is not like her… what’s her name? You know her better and should have warned me earlier… What an item!), Kamal Nath said in Hindi while the crowd called out Imarti Devi’s name.

However, Nath on Sunday said that he has already clarified the context in which he made that statement.

“It is Rahul Gandhi’s opinion. I have already clarified the context in which I made that statement…Why should I apologise when I did not intend to insult anyone? If anyone felt insulted, I have already expressed regret,” said the former MP.

(With inputs from agencies)

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INDIA

Bihar assembly election phase 1: 31% candidates with criminal cases

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NEW DELHI: In the phase one of Bihar assembly

2020, as many as 328 (31%) candidates are with criminal cases and 244 (23%) are with serious criminal cases, according to a recent analysis done by the election watchdog Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR). The watchdog analysed self-sworn affidavits of 1064 out of 1066 candidates contesting phase one of the election.

Among political parties, RJD has fielded most number of candidates with criminal background, followed by BJP.

Also, out of the 1064 candidates analysed by the watchdog, 375 (35%) are crorepatis. The average assets of candidates contesting phase 1 election is Rs 1.99 crores.

Of this 9% candidates have wealth of Rs 5 crore and above, while 12% have wealth between Rs 2 and Rs 5 crore.

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INDIA

Pandemic to shave off 40% operating profit of pvt hospitals: Report

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MUMBAI: The pandemic will eat up around 40 per cent of the operational profit of private hospitals this fiscal, as billing has plunged drastically due to the virus outbreak and the resultant proclivity of people to avoid hospitals for non-emergency situations, says a report.

The Crisil report released on Tuesday, however, noted that a large number of pandemic cases, which though is low-margin, will get these hospitals an additional revenue to the tune of 15-20 per cent.

Further, with the relaxation in lockdown and travel restrictions, footfalls have started improving from July, helping bed-occupancy levels.

The report also expects bed-occupancy levels to stabilise 65-70 per cent of the pre-lockdown levels in the second half of the fiscal. This, along with additional revenue from the pandemic treatment will help limit overall decline in revenue to 16-18 per cent, as against 17 per cent annual growth logged in the two preceding fiscals, it said.

Since the pandemic-driven lockdowns that began late March, hospitals have been on a crisis path as people began to avoid going to hospitals for regular consultations and began to postpone elective surgeries, which have been the most lucrative procedures for any hospital, especially organ transplants among others.

“A triple whammy of postponement in elective surgeries, revenue loss from the highly profitable medical tourism segment, and increasing costs will lead to 35-40 per cent reduction in operating profit of private hospitals this fiscal,” Crisil said.

The report is based on the analysis of 40 hospitals, including 36 rated by the agency, which account for over Rs 36,000 crore of the sector’s revenue.

Even though the trauma and emergency treatment account for 28-30 per cent of revenue continued, but at a much lower level, given the fewer accidents during the lockdowns.

On top of these, medical tourism, which accounts for 10-12 per cent of revenue but gets the highest margins, especially for large hospitals, came to a complete standstill, due to travel restrictions imposed as part of the lockdowns.

However, the pandemic is set to bring them around 20 per cent of the revenue despite low margin.

“Treating COVID-19 patients is expected to provide an additional revenue stream and may contribute 15-20 per cent to revenue this fiscal. But it is not as profitable as other revenue streams. Additionally, given the high fixed cost structure of hospitals, lower overall occupancy will result in lesser absorption of overheads.

“This, coupled with the increased cost of safety and sanitation will lead to 35-40 per cent decline in operating profit this fiscal,” the report said.

Weakened operating performance accentuated cash-flow challenges in the first half and to manage the situation, hospitals have deferred 35-40 per cent of planned capex for this fiscal, and are now resorting to short-term debt funding.

About a third of the agency-rated hospitals also availed moratorium for loan repayments which supported their liquidity during the first half.

Nonetheless, the credit outlook for the sector remains moderately negative, with credit metrics being impacted primarily by lower profit, the report said adding that the deterioration in performance is expected to be only temporary, and a strong bounce-back is likely in the next fiscal supported by pent up demand.

“Elective surgeries cannot be postponed indefinitely and medical tourism is also expected to recoup as travel restrictions ease. We expect a healthy 25 per cent revenue growth in fiscal 2022, and operating profitability to recover to pre-pandemic levels, including due to lower share of less-profitable treatment for the pandemic patients,” the report said.

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