The Haffkine Institute

The Haffkine Institute (established in 1899) named after the scientist who discovered the plague vaccine, is one of the oldest institutes of its kind in our country. The first ever Phase-I clinical trial in our country was perhaps conducted by the founder of the Institute in 1899 in this very Institute, when he injected himself with the plague vaccine he developed for evaluating its safety and efficacy.

Dr. Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine, a Russian scientist, and a student of the great Louis Pasteur had arrived in India in March 1893, and was fighting a lone battle against Cholera in Calcutta by inoculating the population with the Cholera vaccine developed by him in Paris. This work evoked so much interest that in 1896, when an epidemic of plague broke out in Bombay and Poona, the then Governor of Bombay invited Dr. W M Haffkine to Bombay and provided some laboratory space to him on the campus of JJ Group of Hospitals to work on plague vaccine. Dr. Haffkine accepted the challenge and successfully developed the plague vaccine, and on January10, 1897, he vaccinated himself to test the safety of his vaccine.

On the 10th of August 1899, the present mansion, which was at one time the residence of the Governor of Bombay, was formally handed over to Dr. W M Haffkine by the Governor Lord Sandhurst.

This present building in which Dr. Haffkine worked has an interesting story. It is supposed to have been built on the site of an old temple of Parli Vaijnath, which gave the name Parel to the adjoining village. On this site the Jesuits built a Monastery and the Chapel sometime between 1596-1693. The exact date is not known, but the present premise of Haffkine Institute was known as Romish Chapel of Jesuits and was in existence in 1673. The Chapel had extensive grounds of its own almost resembling a park with big spreading trees growing all over. From the estates in Bombay, Jesuits maintained a Mission in Agra and Japan, even when Bombay had passed into the hands of the British because according to the Treaty of 1665, the Portuguese were not to be interfered with in their religious order. In the year 1719, the British confiscated all Jesuit properties after a Maratha invasion, on the plea that the Jesuits had allowed the Marathas to mount their guns aimed at the British from one of their properties at Bandra.The building, thereafter, became the residence of Registrars of Bombay until the demolition of the Fort. The Governors of Bombay used to live in Parel after leaving the Fort. The building was then known as Government House. This area was then considered to be a very aristocratic locality. In 1885, the Governors left this residence and the premises were used as House of Recorders of the Bombay Presidency. In 1895, King Edward VII visited India as Prince of Wales, and stayed on the premises for a week. On such a historical premises Dr.Haffkine entered on 10th August 1899. At that time it was designated as “Plague Research Laboratory” with Dr. W M Haffkine as its Director in Chief. In 1906 the Institute was renamed as “Bombay Bacteriology Laboratory”. Finally, in 1925, due to the efforts of Lt. Col. F.P. Mackie, the Institute was aptly named as “Haffkine Institute”. By the time Dr. Haffkine left India in 1904, the Institute had developed the technology for the production of plague and cholera vaccines. The Institute advanced continuously, inheriting the spirit of challenge of the founder Director Dr. Haffkine. New disciplines were pursued and newer departments were established.

The Institute has emerged as a multi-disciplinary, full fledged bio-medical research Institute engaged in various aspects of infectious diseases – Bacteriology, Bioavailability, Biochemistry, Chemotherapy, Clinical Pathology, Entomology, Human Pharmacology, Immunology, Parasitology, Pharmacology, Radiation Biology, Toxicology, Virology and Zoonosis.

Earlier, research centred mainly around the development of biologicals, such as vaccines and sera. Between 1899 and 1904, large quantities of vaccines had to be produced and sent out. So, methods of production, standardization and packaging were improvised. It was not just imitation, but adaptation to the demands made by the exigencies of circumstances.

After 1905, research at the Institute entered a second phase. Plague epidemiology was thoroughly investigated; Liston, a young and astute observer, studied the ecology of bubonic plague and proved beyond doubt that bubonic plague was carried by rat fleas to man. He was the first to establish the epidemiology of the zooanthroponosis transmitted by an arthropod and this discovery opened the way to the eradication of plague. The American Veterinary Epidemiology Society recognized the work of this pioneer posthumously with the 1971 Karl F. Meyer Award.

During this phase, many important adaptations and innovations were made in the development of culture media and the methods of production of vaccines and antisera. Sokhey and Habbu standardized methods for bioassay of plague and cholera vaccines, both of which continue to be in vogue. Cholera and plague vaccines were produced using modified liquid media and this served to enhance their antigenicity. The search for newer and better methods of production and standardization still goes on.

After 1940, research at the Institute entered a third phase of development under the able leadership of Major-General Sokhey, the Institute accepted the challenges of World War Il. Sulphonamides had just been introduced as chemotherapeutic agents by Domagk in 1939-an epoch-making discovery. Simple chemicals were highly effective in the treatment of bacterial infections, but they were scarce and highly priced. The Department of Chemotherapy pioneered the synthesis of sulphathiazole in this country. Young scientists, working under the inspiring leadership of Dr. Ganapathi and Dr. Shirsat, prepared Vitamin A concentrates, so essential in the prevention of night blindness, from shark liver oil. A new antiseptic formulation ‘Pemon’ was developed.
The Institute often acts as a reference laboratory for plague and materials are referred here by the WHO.

Susceptibility of rats to Yersinia, as well as to rodenticides has been studied in the Department of Zoonosis. V. cholerae has also been the subject of intensive study. Because of a lack of animal model for study, the pathogenesis of cholera was not understood for a long time. Dr. Dutta and Dr. Panse made a breakthrough when they reported development of typical cholera-like syndrome in infant rabbits. Since then, the rabbit model, has been used all over the world for the study of this disease and the elucidation of the mechanism of cholera toxin. Various strains of Vibrio have been studied at the Institute for their growth requirements at the macromolecular level.

The Institute developed a Killed Tissue Culture vaccine for KFD (Kysanur Forest Disease) Virus and in the early 70’s carried out research in Cholera carriers and epidemiology of Filariasis.

On September 1, 1975, the Institute was bifurcated into two separate organizations:-Haffkine Institute for Training, Research and Testing, and Haffkine Bio-pharmaceutical Corporation Ltd.

The Haffkine Institute for Training, Research and Testing continues its works in research, testing and training field whereas the Haffkine Bio-pharmaceutical Corporation Ltd. is involved in production of different medicinal drugs and vaccines.

The current research areas in the Haffkine Institute for Training, Research and Testing include studies of infections occurring in AIDS patients, improvement in the FMD vaccine, surveillance and microbiological analysis of typhoid, prevalence of drug resistance in bacteria, and continuous development of newer chemotherapeutic agents to combat microbial and zoonotic infections.

The Institute also serves as a premier teaching institution in the field of biomedical sciences and is affiliated to the University of Bombay for M.Sc (Microbiology, Applied Biology & Organic Chemistry), Ph.D. (Microbiology) and M.D (P.S.M.) degree programs. In addition, the Institute undertakes specialized testing assignments/projects for pharmaceutical and other health-related products.

All the scientific activities are backed by a library, which boasts of a huge collection of scientific journals, books, monographs, other reference material, literature and search facility on electronic media.

A snake farm, created in 1938, is now engaged in a public education program with an objective to clear the misgivings and fear about snakes from the public mind and to educate people on the usefulness of snakes to human beings by explaining their role in biodiversity and ecology in today’s era.

As research in communicable diseases is the first priority at the Haffkine Institute, its research programmes are organized to tackle problems of public health. It works in close collaboration with public health authorities of the countrv and the State.

Biomedical research is aimed at bringing about lasting changes in the structure of our society. In a developing country, what matters is the priorities we set for progress in biomedical sciences. The Haffkine Institute has set its priorities in research in the context of the needs of the community. Its scientists have pledged themselves to harness science to solve the problems that still continues to plague millions of our countrymen.

The Future:

The war against infectious diseases is unending. Newer diseases keep emerging, posing newer challenges for scientists. Hence, after a decade into its 2nd century, it is poised for a great leap ahead through up-gradation of its laboratories and acquisition of expertise to combat the impending danger of emerging diseases.

From Directors Desk
To write about an Institute which dates back 106 years is always a tough task. For the Staff of such a premier Institute, it is all the more difficult since it is impossible to talk about the largesse of the activities carried out here, on a small canvass.

As I occupy the Chair of the Head of this Institute, I take pleasure introducing various activities carried out here. As the name of the Institute goes, Training, Research and Testing are given equal importance.

The Institute has been conducting the Annual Biotechnology Course for three years running, catering to undergraduate students across the country. Till date, 600 students have benefited from the Course, not to mention the M.D, M.Phil, M.Sc and Ph.D. students from various colleges and Universities who have been trained in various techniques from our Departments.

The Institute is engaged in various research projects ranging from classical microbiology to modern-day biotechnology. Antibiotic sensitivity tests and bacterial load are evaluated in juxtaposition with protein and antibody purification. Multiple viruses like HIV, HSV, CMV, Rabies, Influenza and Hepatitis group are isolated, identified, and evaluated.

Testing is a major revenue earner for the Institute. Anti-virals, anti-malarials, anti-bacterials are tested on one hand, while on the other, country liquor, disinfectants and detergents are tested for toxicity.

The Chemical Testing Unit of the Institute carries out testing of alcohol, spirits, Indian Made Foreign Liquors (I.M.F.L.) and Country Liquors. These products are submitted by the Prohibition and Excise Department of the Government of Maharashtra and Customs Department of Government of India.

I believe that one and all in the scientific fraternity have heard about the development of the Nodal Centre for Re-emerging Diseases to be initiated in days to come. This is to be undertaken at the Department of Zoonosis at the Institute. In near future, a dream project of the Government of Maharashtra is being realised at the Haffkine Institute. This is the development of a BIOTECH HUB incorporating the Institute as a core facility. This HUB will bring together the three arms of research, Viz., the Scientists, the Corporates and the Infrastructural facility.

I will update about the developments in the coming editions from my desk.

Dr. R. A. Deshmukh
Director, Haffkine Institute
On the 23rd day of October, 2005


Photo Gallery
Dr. Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine
Dr. Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine in his laboratory

The Mahatma At Haffkine in 1935
Dr. C. V. Raman At Haffkine Institute in 1949
Dr. Rajendra Prasad At Haffkine Institute in 1959
Incubation Room in early days

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