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Taming the toxins

Potential toxicologists, pay heed. There is a shortage of qualified toxicologists in India. The opportunity exists. It’s time to grab it, says Rahat Bano.

education Updated: Sep 22, 2011 11:48 IST
Rahat Bano

Potential toxicologists, pay heed. There is a shortage of qualified toxicologists in India. The opportunity exists. It’s time to grab it.

The importance and scope of a toxicologist’s work – of checking and determining safety limits of various toxic compounds present in food, water, air, drugs and other material – is growing with rising awareness and health concerns in the country. With that, institutions and labs involved in this work are going to expand, as well.

“Toxicologists in India are in great demand,” says Dr PK Gupta, patron and founder, Society of Toxicology (India), or STOX, and president, Academy of Sciences for Animal Welfare. “In the industry, the scope is much wider and toxicologists are in great demand. At present, institutions are unable to meet the demand because most toxicologists are attracted by other countries.” Indeed. “Most of our male students go abroad for their PhD,” says Sarwat Sultana, head, department of toxicology, Jamia Hamdard, Delhi, one of the few universities in India to offer a master’s in general toxicology.

Those who do not head overseas for their doctorate, join pharmaceutical, chemical, agricultural, cosmetic and other consumer product sectors; food companies; academic institutions, including those for pharmacy, medicine, and veterinary science; government agencies (environment ministry and forensics departments); toxicology labs; or become freelance consultants or medical writers.

“An MSc in toxicology can get (you) into any field, be it biotechnology, biochemistry or pharmacology, because no such field is complete without toxicology,” says Sultana.

The drug development sphere is especially promising for toxicologists. YK Gupta, president, STOX and professor and head, department of pharmacology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, elaborates. “The demand for toxicologists in the drug discovery and development process has increased tremendously due to the discovery of some major, harmful effects of drugs, like the teratogenic effect of thalidomide in infants; and stringent requirement of toxicity testing of any new drug before it is approved for use in humans... …With the exponential growth of the pharmaceutical sector, the scope for a toxicologist is also tremendous,” he says. Teratogenic effect means a substance’s ability to disturb the growth and development of an embryo or foetus.

YK Gupta adds that avenues are widening in academia, as well. “Due to the increasing demand for toxicologists, the number of courses for toxicology is also on the rise,” he says.

Pharmacovigilance (monitoring and preventing harmful effects of medicines), which is gaining prominence in India, is expected to absorb more toxicologists.

Started this year, the Pharmacovigilance Programme of India (PvPI) by India’s Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation, has 10 centres in medical colleges across various states. “These adverse-event monitoring centres (AMCs) monitor the harmful effects of drugs and report to the National Coordinating Centre (NCC) at the department of pharmacology at AIIMS. By the end of 2010, the number of centres will increase to 40. The aim is to cover the entire healthcare system of the country by 2013. In India, toxicologists may watch for job opportunities that the programme will generate,” says YK Gupta.

Meanwhile, the current demand-supply gap gives such specialists another advantage. “In general, toxicologists get paid well due to a shortage of qualified and experienced people,” says YK Gupta. Besides, in the government sector, Sixth Pay Commission salary scales have made it a more attractive proposition than before. “It was considered that the private sector pays handsome salaries compared to the public or regulatory sectors. However, the difference probably is not as stark after the Sixth Pay Commission report,” says YK Gupta.

What's it about?
Literally meaning the study of poisons, toxicology today involves studying the toxicity of compounds and their effects on living organisms. Toxicologists evaluate and determine safe levels (or dose regimen) of compounds, which could be present in air, water, food, textiles or other materials (like dental implants). Toxicologists study the impact of a wide range of chemicals, pollutants, contaminants, noxious gases and biomaterials (like household cleaning agents)

Clock Work
This is the average day of a toxicologist at an R&D organisation:
10 am: Plan laboratory experiments
11 am: Start experiments
1 pm: Lunch
1.30 pm: Do some research related to the experiments on the Internet or in the library
2 pm: Back to lab work
5 pm: Record data
5.30 pm: Meeting with team head to discuss observations from the experiment
6 pm: Pack up for the day

The Payoff
An MSc-holder in toxicology can expect a starting pay package of Rs20,000 to Rs25,000 a month in the industry and Rs35,000 a month in a university.

A toxicologist with a basic veterinary or medical degree, and a postgraduate qualification can draw above Rs50,000 a month. In India, after working for two to three years, toxicologists generally move to another industry at double the salary.

With a BVSc or MBBS background, toxicologists can go on to earn about Rs1.30 lakh a month as a professor (as they earn 25% extra compared those with a BSc) in a university.

A non-BVSc/non-MBBS toxicologist would make about Rs80,000 to Rs90,000 a month as a professor

Skills
. Scientific aptitude, especially an interest in subjects like biochemistry
. Analytical skills
. Willingness to put in hard work in labs, with harmful chemicals

How do i get there?
Study science in Class 11 and Class 12. In college, you may go for a degree in medicine, veterinary science, pharmacy, biochemistry, botany, chemistry, zoology, biochemistry, biotechnology, microbiology, environmental biology or some other life science-based discipline.

Thereafter, a postgraduate training – MSc, MD, PhD – in toxicology or a related field is fast becoming a prerequisite

Institutes & urls
. Indian Institute of Toxicological Research, Lucknow
www.iitrindia.org
. Central Drug Research Institute, Lucknow
www.cdriindia.org
. Indian Veterinary Research Institute, Bareilly (and almost all veterinary colleges in the country)
www.ivri.nic.in
. Jamia Hamdard, Delhi
www.jamiahamdard.edu

Pros & Cons


.

Wider in scope as compared to pharmacology. A toxicologist can get into fields such as biotechnology, biochemistry and pharmacology


.

Limited study (master’s level) and job options at the moment but the field is growing in India


.

Exposure to harmful chemicals and compounds

Toxicologists in India are in great demand

A veteran practioner talks about the field, the wide range of applications it has and the advantages of joining it in the country

What do toxicologists do? How are their skills, role, and objectives different from a pharmacologist’s?
Pharmacologists are involved in the development of drugs and have a limited scope either as academics or in the pharmaceutical industry, whereas a toxicologist deals with all types of poisons and covers the risk paradigm in multi-disciplinary areas. A pharmacologist deals with the action of drugs on various systems of living organisms while the side effects of drugs are covered under toxicology.

Thus, a toxicologist focuses on the health impacts of environmental and occupational exposures (from any toxic compound). He evaluates the risks and safety from various exposures through thousands of compounds or chemicals present in the environment, food, drugs or through occupational exposure.

Therefore, toxicologists require skill in the disciplines of pharmacology, radiation, biology, analytical chemistry, instrumentation, biostatistics, computer science, clinical medicine, as well as regulatory and safety evaluation procedures.

What’s the scope in toxicology?
It’s really wide. Anything for human consumption or which people are exposed to has to be tested for its harmful effects, before use. Toxicologists do this work mainly in pharmaceutical companies, the food industry, manufacturing industry, cosmetics and consumer goods makers, as well as in pollution control boards. They can also work for epidemiological surveys done by health authorities.

Toxicologists evaluate and set safe limits or maximum residue levels for food items, and maximum concentration in the environment for inhalation.

How are toxicologists doing in India? What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a toxicologist?
Toxicologists in India are in great demand. They are required in areas including environmental health, clinical and forensic toxicology (detection of intentional or unintentional toxic substances), industry (assessment of hazards of new compounds), government agencies (to “police” health problems from contaminants in the environment, and drug abuse); in private commercial laboratories; in material science toxicology (biomedical and engineering disciplines), as educators (courses in pharmacy, medicine, dentistry, agricultural, and veterinary practice); and finally for collection, storing, and retrieving toxicological information.

In the industry, the scope is much wider and toxicologists are in great demand. At present, institutions are unable to meet the demand because most toxicologists are attracted by other countries.

What’s a preferable first degree for an aspiring toxicologist?
A BVSc or MBBS is better because they have full knowledge of human and animal systems.

Dr PK Gupta, patron and founder, Society of Toxicology (India), or STOX, and president, Academy of Sciences for Animal Welfare Interviewed by Rahat Bano