‘By changing the environment, you can improve people’s lives’

Ian Lipkin
Ian Lipkin, 60, Virologist
Photo: Sarang Sena

WHEN I think about the one idea that inspires me and my work, I’d rather not talk about epidemics, because I think that’s easy. The tools that are required to identify infectious agents that cause outbreaks are becoming less expensive and more rapid, and the real challenge is trying to understand the roots of disease that are laid down in infancy, or even before, and how as a result of exposure during life, you change the way genes are expressed.
We thought when we began sequencing the human genome that the answers to why people are the way they are would be resolved. But the more we have delved into this, the more we have learnt that the most important bit is not the coding sequence, but the way the genes are modified over the course of life. It results in cancer, modifications in height and intelligence, longevity of life, obesity, all kinds of things. And we have learnt that the types of exposure that you see in early life can have an enormous impact.
Now, the exciting thing about this, from the vantage points of democracy, productivity and evolution, is that by changing the environment, you can improve people’s lives. We have learnt from patterns of disease in mice that how you feed an animal when it is pregnant determines whether its offsprings will be obese or not. Similarly, if you consider intellectual aptitude and social intelligence, if you get exposed early to a social environment that is rich, you can improve people’s lives in the longer term. This means that you can take someone who comes from a poor background and give them a better life by adjusting their early environment.
The last thing I find exciting is the notion that you can think about social behaviours like infectious diseases. When I think about infection, I actually mean the concept of transmissibility. If you have a positive or negative relationship with someone, that influences their behaviour, which, in turn, influences somebody else. There is some truth to the notion of karma. Children who grow up in areas where there is a lot of violence, for example, will influence others to be violent. Instead, if you can intercede and contain that violence, that would have a huge impact on the spread of violence. You can immunise people against violence.
As told to Ajachi Chakrabarti
Ajachi Chakrabarti is a Correspondent with Tehelka.