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Rhododendrons of eastern Himalayas under threat

In news:

  • North-eastern States in India are home to 97% of the Rhododendron species and sub-species in the country.
  • New Threat: indiscriminate felling and loss of habitat in the north-eastern States has left many of these beautiful flowering plants vulnerable to extinction.
  • Epiphytic species, which grow on other trees or plants, of rhododendrons with limited population are most vulnerable due to loss of the host trees.
  • In high altitude areas of Arunachal Pradesh, rhododendrons are routinely cut for firewood by local people, forest fires in the dry seasons in Manipur and Nagaland were threatening the survival of many species.
  • The endemic R. wattii from Dzukou hills of Manipur and Nagaland is one of the most critically endangered species in India, with only a few adult trees remaining in their natural habitat.

Key fact:

  • Rhododendron (rose tree in Greek) —18 species endemic to India.
  • The publication, Rhododendron of North East India: A Pictorial Handbook by scientists Ashiho A. Mao, Sudhansu Sekhar Dash and Paramjit Singh (no need to remember the names ) points out that studies and records suggest that there are 132 taxa (80 species, 25 sub species and 27 varieties) of Rhododendron found in India, of which 129 are found in the north-eastern India alone.
  • Only three taxa — Rhododendron arboretum nilagiricum found in south India and Rhododendron colletianum and Rhododendron rawatti from the western Himalayas are not found in the north-east.
  • Arunachal Pradesh is home to the highest number with 119 taxa (74 species, 21 sub species and 24 varieties) of the Rhododendron. The small State of Sikkim is home to 42 taxa (25 species, 11 sub-species and six varieties) while 10 taxa are found in Manipur, four in Mizoram and 11 in Nagaland.
  • Geographical factors: cold, moist slopes and deep valleys of the eastern Himalayas form a conducive habitat for the luxuriant growth of Rhododendron species. Nowhere in the world, are such unique geographical and ecological formations are found. This is the primary reason for such a diversity of Rhododendron available in the region
  • The two famous Rhododendron sanctuaries in the Sikkim State are Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary in the West district, covering an area of 104 and Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary in Yumthang valley of North district with an area of 43
  • Rhododendrons are used in local medicines against colds, coughs and chronic bronchitis and diarrhoea.

Think tank snub clouds India-Singapore ties

  • New Delhi pulled out of Singapore’s strategic, annual Shangri-La Dialogue over ranking of Indian Minister
  • India decided to withdraw its delegation led by Minister of State for Defence Subhash Bhamre.
  • According to senior officials privy to the decision, organisers of the prestigious conference informed the government that the Indian Minister did not rank as highly as Pakistan’s Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, General Zubair Mahmood Hayat, as “civil military relations in Pakistan are different from those in India.”
  • Panel presence
  • Organisers at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), that runs the conference for the Government of Singapore told the Ministry of External Affairs that, as a result, Mr Bhamre, who was filling in for Defence Minister Arun Jaitley, would only be accommodated at a “plenary session” on the last day of the three-day event (June 2-4), and not on one of the main panels as General Hayat was.
  • “When asked, the IISS “regretted” the Indian decision, and said the MEA had informed them very late, only a week before the start of the conference that they wanted a “speaking role” for Mr Bhamre. Organisers said they had earlier expected Defence Minister Arun Jaitley to attend the event, since former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had addressed the Dialogue in June 2016.
  • The Shangri-La Dialogue, funded and hosted by the Singapore government, is a unique “track-one” conference that defence ministers, officials and military chiefs of 28 Asia-Pacific countries, including China and the United States, attend each year.
  • India and Singapore have recently completed their week-long annual Maritime Bilateral Exercise (SIMBEX-17).

Promising first step in producing blood cancer drug

  • Researchers at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, have synthesised a small molecule (a benzothiazole derivative), codenamed5g, found to be effective in inhibiting cell proliferation in both leukaemia and breast cancer cell lines.
  • This was achieved by arresting a particular phase (G2/M) of the cell cycle, thereby preventing cancer cells from dividing and growing in number.
  • In the case of mouse models, the 5g molecule was able to arrest tumour growth without causing significant side-effects.
  • The inhibitor was able to arrest the cancer cells from proliferating by elevating the levels of intracellular reactive oxygen species (ROS), which, in turn, causes DNA damage by breaking the DNA’s double-strands.
  • The molecule also activated the cell death pathway when higher concentration was used. However, the molecule did not cause any damage to normal blood cells.
  • “Depending on the dosage, the molecule can either kill or cause DNA damage thus arresting normal cell cycle, or allow the cells to repair the DNA double-strand breaks and revert to normal cell cycle [at lower concentrations],” says Dr. Sathees C. Raghavan from the Department of Biochemistry at IISc and the corresponding author of the paper.

Novel compound inhibits lung cancer growth in lab studies

  • A novel organic compound synthesised by a group of scientists from University of Madras, IIT Madras and Sri Ramachandra University, Chennai, has shown it can inhibit the growth of cancer cells by inducing programmed cell death.
  • The alkaline compound (glycopyrrolidine) derivative was tested using various assays and found to be toxic only to the cancer cells and not healthy cells.
  • More than 40 compounds were created using simple starting chemicals such as glucose and proline (an amino acid) and their activity were tested against cancer cells.
  • The compound that exhibited maximum activity at minimal concentration was selected and named RP-RR-210.
  • The effect of the compound was studied on lung and pancreatic cancer cells.
  • The incidence of pancreatic cancer is increasing in India, and there is a need for new drugs as the available drugs are highly toxic to normal cells and do more damage to the body than killing the cancer cells.
  • The compound showed prominent growth inhibition on cancer cells but only 10-20% growth inhibition in normal cells.
  • Cancer cells treated with this compound shrank in size, while no morphological changes were seen in healthy cells.
  • The compound also inhibited spread of cancer cell to other organs.
  • The biggest advantage of the compound is that it is made with easily available starting materials. The compound is non-toxic with no side effects, as it acts like bait for the cancer cells alone. It is readily soluble in water and can be easily absorbed by the body.
  • The researchers propose to carry out further studies to fully understand the anti-tumour properties of the compound and carry out preclinical trials on mice models.

A fascinating cancer fight

  • The 86 cancer patients were a disparate group, with tumours of the pancreas, prostate, uterus or bone. One woman had a cancer so rare there were no tested treatments.
  • Still, these patients had a few things in common. All had advanced disease that had resisted every standard treatment. All carried genetic mutations that disrupted the ability of cells to fix damaged DNA. And all were enrolled in a trial of a drug that helps the immune system attack tumours.
  • The results are so striking that the Food and Drug Administration already has approved the drug, pembrolizumab, brand nameKeytruda, for patients whose cancers arise from the same genetic abnormality.
  • It is the first time a drug has been approved for use against tumours that share a certain genetic profile, whatever their location in the body. Tens of thousands of cancer patients each year could benefit.
  • After taking pembrolizumab, 66 patients had their tumours shrink substantially and stabilise, instead of continuing to grow. Among them were 18 patients whose tumours vanished and have not returned.
  • The drug, made by Merck, is already on the market for select patients with a few types of advanced lung, melanoma and bladder tumours. Just 4% of cancer patients have the type of genetic aberration susceptible to pembrolizumab. But that adds up to a lot of patients: as many as 60,000 each year in the United States alone, the study’s investigators estimated.
  • Clinicians have long been accustomed to classifying cancers by their location in the body – patients are diagnosed with lung cancer, for example, or brain cancer. Yet researchers have been saying for years that what matters was the genetic mutation causing the tumour.
  • The new study was based on a different idea. The immune system can recognise cancer cells as foreign and destroy them. But tumours deflect the attack by shielding proteins on their surface, making them invisible to the immune system.
  • Pembroluzimab is a new type of immunotherapy drug known as a PD-1 blocker, which unmasks the cancer cells so that the immune system can find and destroy them.

Marine reserves can help mitigate climate change effects

  • An international research team has evaluated 145 peer-reviewed studies and concluded that “highly protected” marine reserves can help mitigate the effects of climate change.
  • “Marine reserves can make marine ecosystems more resilient to changes and, in some cases, help slow down the rate of climate change.”
  • Around the world, coastal nations have committed to protecting 10 per cent of their waters by 2020, but thus far only 3.5 per cent of the ocean has been set aside for protection, and 1.6 per cent, or less than half of that, is strongly protected from exploitation,.
  • Some researchers have argued that as much as 30 per cent of the ocean should be set aside as reserves to safeguard marine ecosystems in the long-term.
  • “Protecting a portion of our oceans and coastal wetlands will help sequester carbon, limit the consequences of poor management, protect habitats and biodiversity that are key to healthy oceans of the future, and buffer coastal populations from extreme events.”
  • The study also notes that ocean surface waters have become on average 26 per cent more acidic since pre-industrial times, and by the year 2100 under a “business-as-usual” scenario they will be 150 per cent more acidic, while coastal wetlands, including mangroves, seagrasses and salt marshes, have demonstrated a capacity for reducing local carbon-dioxide concentrations because many contain plants with high rates of photosynthesis.
  • The dense vegetation in coastal wetlands can also provide protection against severe storms, which are increasing in intensity in many parts of the world.
  • Coastal wetlands, along with coral and oyster reefs, kelp forests and mud flats, can help ameliorate impacts of rising sea levels and storm surge.
  • The average global sea level has risen about seven inches since 1900, and is expected to increase nearly three feet by the year 2100, threatening many low-lying cities and nations.

Increased probability of deaths from heat waves

  • The mean temperature across India has risen by 0.5 degree C during the period 1960 and 2009, and this has led to a significant increase in heat waves in the country.
  • Based on modelling studies, researchers from IIT Bombay, IIT Delhi and the University of California, Irvine have found that when the summer mean temperature during this period increased from 27 degrees C to 27.5 degree C, the probability of a heat wave killing in excess of 100 people shot up from 13% to 32% – an increase of 146%.
  • Between 1960 and 2009, the intensity, number of heat-wave events taking place each year and the duration in days have increased across the country, particularly, in the northern, southern and western parts of India.
  • The IMD is doing extremely well in forecasting a heat wave. The only problem is that people are not aware of the adverse impact of heat waves.

The case for rational access

  • Every two years, the World Health Organization (WHO) releases a list of medicines that it considers fundamental for governments across the world to make available to their people.
  • The latest revision of the Essential Medicines List (EML) adds several new drugs, including two oral cancer treatments, a new drug for hepatitis C, and new paediatric formulations of medicines for tuberculosis.
  • With this EML as a guide, WHO encourages countries to make their national lists.
  • The 2017 list has 30 new medicines for adults and 25 new medicines for children, bringing the EML total to 433 drugs.
  • A new TB drug, delamanid is neither registered nor available in the Indian TB programme but now WHO’s newly revised EML recommends that national governments take steps to make it available to the people.
  • With 2.8 million new cases reported annually, India has some of the highest prevalence of DR TB, including multidrug-resistant and extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis, in the world.
  • In January 2017, a teenage girl who was suffering from DR TB had taken the government to court for her right to access delamanid. The patient community has been requesting the government to direct Otsuka Pharmaceuticals, the company that holds monopoly over the drug, to register it in India without delay.
  • The WHO also divided antibiotic drugs into three categories – ‘access’, ‘watch’, and ‘reserve’ – and framed recommendations on when each category should be prescribed or used.

India’s Chabahar plan faces U.S. hurdle

  • Western manufacturers are shying away from supplying equipment for an Iranian port that India is developing for fear the United States may reimpose sanctions on Tehran, Indian officials say, dealing a blow to New Delhi’s strategic ambitions in the region.
  • Lying on the Gulf of Oman along the approaches to the Straits of Hormuz, the port of Chabahar is central to India’s hopes to crack open a transport corridor to Central Asia and Afghanistan that bypasses arch-rival Pakistan.
  • India committed $500 million to speed development of the port after sanctions on Iran were lifted following a deal struck between major powers and Tehran to curb its nuclear programme in 2015.
  • But the state-owned Indian firm that is developing Chabahar is yet to award a single tender for supplying equipment such as cranes and forklifts, according to two government sources tracking India’s biggest overseas infrastructure push.
  • U.S. President Donald Trump denounced the nuclear agreement on the campaign trail, and since taking office in January has accused Iran of being a threat to countries across the West Asian region.
  • Mr. Trump has called the agreement between Iran and six major world powers restricting Tehran’s nuclear programme in exchange for lifting of sanctions “the worst deal ever negotiated.”
  • Swiss engineering group Liebherr and Finland’s Konecranes and Cargotec have told India Ports Global Pvt Ltd., which is developing the deep water port, they were unable to take part in the bids as their banks were not ready to facilitate transactions involving Iran due to the uncertainty over U.S. policy, the two officials said in separate conversations with Reuters.
  • These firms dominate the market for customised equipment to develop jetties and container terminals. One official said the first tender was floated in September, but attracted few bidders because of the fear of renewed sanctions. That fear has intensified since January 2017.