Professor Radhakrishna Pillai has undoubtedly a brilliant and unique track record in India as an administrator, scientist and a perfect example of a taking science from laboratories to direct public benefit. A scientist with over 31 years of postdoctoral research experience in disease biology and clinical biotechnology, he is an elected fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists (London), all three Indian Science Academies and the Indian Medical Academy. In recognition of his contributions to medical biotechnology, Professor Pillai was appointed Director, Rajiv Gandhi Centrefor Biotechnology (RGCB) an autonomous institution of the Government of India, Department of Biotechnology in 2005, making him then at 44, the youngest head of a national research institution.

RGCB was in 2005, then an institute with an ordinary performance index and limited infrastructure. A visionary distinguishes himself when he finds opportunity in what others find as adversity. Relative lack of infrastructure, personnel and funds welcomed Professor Pillai to RGCB when he initially took office. But he found this as a blessed freedom of possibilities to explore, conceive and execute ideas par excellence. The results are very clear to see. RGCB today is a center with significant standing, best known for its distinct Disease Biology programs with interdisciplinary sciences being effectively used to ask relevant questions in disease pathogenesis. Teaming up cell biologists with pathologists, polymer chemists and even plant biologists to develop viable successful programs in chronic and infectious diseases are a remarkable characteristic of RGCB now. The quantity and quality of publications and patents have substantially increased over the past years to international standards.

Professor Pillai also successfully piloted a second phase development of RGCB to create a unique Bio-Innovation Center (BIC). While emphasis in RGCB was hitherto primarily on Investigator driven science, the second phase concentrated on team driven science for accelerated discovery and early translation. This new innovation center has been conceptualized to interface very well with the present institute creating an excellent ecosystem for discovery science and translation.

The first phase of this Rupees 500 crore project is currently in its final stages. Professor Pillai convinced the state government to transfer 20 acres of land free of cost in the heart of the city for this project, a remarkable achievement, in that even the Indian Air Force and Department of Space had to pay for land. The RGCB Governing Council has also provisionally approved a master plan of Rupees 430 crores for a national institute for viral disease biology and vaccine development including high containment facilities.

Professor Pillai used RGCB's excellent expertise for nation building through new start up industries and utilization of infrastructure for education, research and testing facilities by managing a technology development incubator - BioNest at Kochi. Established in association with the state government, BioNest is a bio-incubator facility that serves to accelerate the commercialization of new technologies, to nurture emerging ventures and to assist new enterprises to forge appropriate link with other biotech companies, academia and government. BioNest aims to provide a viable mechanism for licensing new technologies to upcoming biotech/pharma companies, to start new local ventures and to achieve early state value enhancement of the technology with minimum financial inputs. The deliverables of BioNest are technology packages, new product portfolios, techno economic feasibility and project reports for new products, process/product patents, prototypes of new equipment and rich management experience. BioNest that already has 29 companies incubated will also be a creator of new jobs in technology development, scale-up and translational biotechnology.

It is not always groundbreaking scientific accomplishments that make a scientist great but how he turns even the most trivial achievements into effective means to serve humanity During the period 2006 to 2011, Kerala was swamped with very serious outbreaks of viral fevers including chikungunya and dengue followed by the H1N1 flu pandemic. The state did not have a laboratory to do molecular viral diagnostics and turned to Professor Pillai to provide RGCB’s expertise in assisting the public health service of Kerala. True to his commitment and character, Professor Pillai established a special purpose vehicle called Laboratory Medicine & Molecular Diagnostics (LMMD). LMMD which started off with 3 viral diagnostics, now performs over 40 viral and bacterial parameters and currently is arguably the only facility in India performing these many parameters under one roof. It was in recognition of these services that the Government of India’s Department of Health Research designated this laboratory as a National Virology Network Grade 1 laboratory. Further recognition came as the facility was accredited by both NABL and NABH. With the advent of Covid 19 pandemic, it was only natural that RGCB became a leader for both Covid 19 diagnostics and an approved accredited validation center for new diagnostic kits. Further to cap these achievements, with his experience in large vaccine field trials, Professor Pillai led RGCB to collaboration with Mayo Clinic and Tetherex, a biotech company that will soon initiate a novel candidate vaccine trial in India, where all immunity parameters will be carried out at RGCB. Again this was a remarkable achievement for any research institute.

Under Professor Pillai’s leadership, RGCB continued its strong support to the state government for DNA Fingerprinting services. These services were nationally lauded in wake of two huge tragedies that struck the state of Kerala. The huge fireworks tragedy at Kollam and the Ochi cyclone required a large number of unidentified bodies to be distinguished and returned to next of kin. The small DNA fingerprinting facility which was upgraded to a full fledged Molecular Forensics laboratory worked overtime to identify the hundreds of bodies that were sent for DNA fingerprinting. This huge social service has earned RGCB tremendous public goodwill and appreciation. This laboratory now accredited by both NABL and NABH, is completely self-sustaining and serves the country for human DNA fingerprinting, DNA barcoding for wildlife forensics and a research facility for biologists all over India to outsource their DNA fingerprinting and barcoding based research projects. As a consequence of these achievements, RGCB is also now a senior partner in the India Human Genome Program that aims to DNA fingerprint various sections of India’s population. True to his reputation, he opened the institute laboratories for support to flood relief measures in the floods that devastated the state. This includes working overtime to tackle post flood water borne diseases and arranging for funds and material to be distributed at various medical camps in the state.

Teaching has forever remained Professor Pillai’s primary passion. He successfully created RGCB’s PhD program to be one of the best and most competitive in the country and also initiated India’s first exclusive PhD in Translational Science & Medicine (TSM) Program designed to train candidates with terminal degrees in medicine, dentistry, veterinary sciences and pharmacy to become leaders of the next generation of translational science. Twenty-seven fortunate students took their PhD under Professor Pillai’s mentorship. Another notable event was his inception of a Master’s program in Biotechnology at RGCB, with unique specializations in disease biology, genetic engineering and molecular diagnostics. This program has become one of the best and most sought after in India.

At RGCB, Professor M. Radhakrishna Pillai led the way for scientific excellence with a unique track record as a scientist and a perfect example of taking science from laboratories to direct public benefit. An excellent example is his work on cervical cancer, the most frequent cancer in women in India, caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Current estimates indicate approximately 132,000 new cases diagnosed and 74,000 deaths annually in India, accounting to nearly 1/3rd of the global cervical cancer deaths. Professor Pillai produced vast knowledge on the complex pathology of the virus; he deployed all his resources in molecular biology, genetics, biochemistry and epidemiology to redefine the empirical approach to HPV infection. Recognizing this, World Health Organization supported Professor Pillai to alleviate the huge economic and social burden of 3-dose vaccine against HPV in Indian women. These studies rationally proved the efficacy of 2-dose of vaccine, the first achievement of its kind in the world. He also went on to prove that one dose of vaccine also has significant potential to prevent infection. Published in the prestigious Lancet Oncology, this study changed international paradigms for cervical cancer prevention. The journal wrote in a commentary “The study will make a long-term contribution to understanding the role of HPV vaccines in preventing infection and disease in countries with high burdens of cervical cancer. The experience of Indian women participating in this vaccine study promises to lead the way in the assessment of one-dose HPV vaccination while formal randomized trials are being established”.

Professor Pillai always encouraged scientists in the institute to be self sufficient in research funding with minimal dependence on the institute for funding. He personally set standards for this at RGCB through an exceptionally impressive track record in obtaining research grants. He a recipient of research funding from the International Agency for Research Against Cancer (WHO) and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (~Rupees 25 Crores), the National Institutes for Health, USA funded program on measles vaccine failure (~Rupees 4 Crores), a Center for Excellence for Translational Breast Cancer Research from the Department of Biotechnology (~Rupees 4 Crores), a National Drug Design Center from Department of Science & Technology (~Rupees 4 Crores), a unique “glue grant” for translational cancer research with the Regional Cancer Centre (~Rupees 4 Crores), a national center for translation of tribal technology (~Rupees 4 crores) from Department of Science & Technology — in addition to a number of smaller grants ranging from Rupees 40 to 90 lakhs. With more than 220 peer-reviewed publications and an H index of 42, Professor Pillai by keeping himself thoroughly engaged in his pioneering research understands the current research enterprise in the country extremely well. This was the prime reason for his success as a scientific acolyte as well as institute commander at the same time, with the unique honor of heading a national research institution for a continuous tenure of 15 years.

Professor Pillai also streamlined administrative and financial management effectively and RGCB is today an extremely efficient institution. Among his achievements as an administrator is the fact that RGCB today has the best social welfare schemes in the country. It is the only institution of the Department of Biotechnology that has created a comprehensive pension scheme for its employees in service before January 1 2004 on par with the old pension plan of Government of India. This was done by getting LIC to manage the institute’s self generated funds from clinical diagnostic, services & consultancies as well as EPF contributions, with no additional burden on Government of India. RGCB also boasts of one of the best medical care facilities for its employees including “cashless” access to the best of government and corporate hospitals

Professor M. Radhakrishna Pillai who superannuated from RGCB on August 31, 2020 is undoubtedly one of India’s best-recognized researchers and an exceptional individual who seeks knowledge for the betterment of humanity.

An ode to Professor M Radhakrishna Pillai by his colleagues.