I have known Dhaniram Baruah before he transplanted a pig heart in a human body on January 1, 1997. He was maverick, temperamental, and flew into a rage at the drop of a hat, but something suggested the man was into pioneering research well ahead of his time.
He was a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and had performed countless cardiac surgeries in the UK and elsewhere. Most surgeons would be happy doing what they did best without venturing into research. Even those who did would stay back in some high-end facility in the West and not return to India, let alone Assam, which lacked any research ecosystem.
On the face of it, Dr Baruah had no reason to leave his cozy UK job and his family behind to set up his own research institute in Sonapur near Guwahati. But he was driven by an indomitable urge to conduct path-breaking research. He had a dream, which he confided to friends. He wanted to be the first Assamese to win a Nobel and the first Indian to win one in Medicine.
Purna Saikia, 32 years old, chosen by Dhaniram Baruah for the pig heart implant, had a ventricular septal defect. Dr Baruah and his Hong Kong partner in this surgery, Jonathan Ho, went through detailed preparations before they implanted the pig heart on Saikia on the first day of 1997.
Unfortunately, Saikia developed hyper-acute rejection and died. That he had survived for a week, however, pointed to the fact that Baruah was on the right track and what he was trying to do was very much in the realm of possibility.
But the death of Saikia triggered a furore. Dr Dhaniram Baruah and Dr Jonathan Ho were arrested on January 10, 1997, under the Transplantation of Human Organs Act, 1994. Both doctors were booked for culpable homicide under the Act and imprisoned for 40 days.
The Assam government formed an inquiry committee that ruled that the pig heart implant operation was unethical and unlawful.
The inquiry also found that the Dr Dhaniram Heart Institute and Research Centre had “neither applied for nor obtained registration” as required under the transplant laws.
After being in jail for 40 days, the doctor returned to his clinic which had been burnt down. It was not clear who was behind the mob fury. Dr Baruah did have his suspicions, which included the land mafia that eyed his Sonapur land to turn the research centre into a tourist resort.
But it is not advisable to name them in absence of evidence.
Be that as it may, Dr Baruah faced social rejection verging on ex-communication in his beloved Assam. Often, he would be called the “Mad Doctor”, the “Pig Doctor” and whatnot. Only a close group of friends including journalists, both in Assam and West Bengal, remained in total support. And surely Dr Baruah’s lawyer Nilomoni Sen Deka, who went on to become a minister in the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government.
All of us who backed Dr Dhaniram Baruah were united by a strong feeling, that the surgeon who had invented the world’s first artificial heart valve, was on the cusp of some path-breaking research. None of us was scientists or medical researchers but our instinct suggested he was on to something big.
Deka firmly believes Dr Baruah deserves a Nobel for blazing a research trail that has now led to a successful pig heart transplant in the US. That may be debatable but surely Dr Baruah does not deserve the ignominy and scorn he had to face.
Dr Bartley Griffith of the US has now surgically implanted a pig heart in a 57-year-old patient who has survived. The American doctor claimed last week that this breakthrough surgery “brings us one step closer to solving the organ shortage crisis”.
There was no mention of Dr Dhaniram Baruah’s xeno-transplant surgery 25 years ago. But Dr Griffith seem to have drawn on lessons from Dr Baruah’s failure to prevent “hyperactive rejection” which had led to Purna Saikia’s death.
Knowing well that 32-year-old Saikia had died of “hyper-acute rejection”, Dr Griffith and his team picked up the donor pig from a herd which had been subjected to genetic editing.
Three genes that could have led to “hyper-acute rejection” of pig organs by a human body were removed and six human genes responsible for human acceptance were inserted into the genome.
The interesting thing is that so much trouble and public scorn did not deter Dr Baruah from giving up his research and returning to the routine life of a surgeon. It only took a new direction.
Often during his visit to my Kolkata home, he would say that cardiac surgery is a global multi-billion dollar industry and a non-surgical way must be found to treat patients who have developed arterial blockages.
In seven years, Dr Baruah came up with his “magic molecules”, Baruah Alpha DH2 and Baruah Beta DH2. He told us the molecules were derived from edible medicinal plants, which were found in Assam, and the spark for this came to Baruah when he discovered that there were no locals visiting his Heart Institute for treatment.
“There must be something in their diet that ensures they don’t suffer arterial clogging and, after painstaking examination, I have found those plants from which the Alpha DH2 and Beta DH2 were made,” he would say.
Unfortunately, neither the Assam government nor the Ministry of Health extended any support to Dr Baruah who continued with his pioneering research. He was reluctant to seek a patent because he suspected top multinationals will access his research and turn it into a money-spinner.
“The people for whom this is all done will not benefit,” he would often say. But without patent and proof of cure, how his discovery would reach the market is a question he was ill at ease to answer.
In the last few years, we have lost contact. I understand Dr Baruah is very sick and barely able to communicate. After the global applause for Dr Griffith, the least Indian and Assam governments could do is to recognise his pioneering effort in some form.
Also, a government that is so keen to promote traditional Indian medicines should look into his “magic molecules” which can treat arterial clogging in a durable way because surgery is a palliative and not a cure, as Dr Baruah always insisted.
His Research Centre in Sonapur should be taken up by the Indian Council of Medical Research and funded for continuing the research streams Dr Baruah had initiated.
If the government can fund research on the impact of Vedic mantra chant (Maha Mrityunjoy) in curing trauma patients, they might well consider funding Dr Baruah’s line of research, specially producing compounds from edible plants.
That may be some recognition for the maverick researcher and may go some way in making up for the humiliation he has undergone so far. Before he passes away.
(Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC correspondent and author on India’s Northeast)
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