A gynaecologist, obstetrician, and infertility specialist who pioneered the gamete intrafallopian transfer (GIFT) technique.
Featuring artwork by Harsho Mohan & words by Dr. Roopali Chaudhary, Sci-Illustrate Stories. Set in motion by Dr. Radhika Patnala.
NOTE: This article does not refer to “India’s first test tube baby” in honour of the work of Dr. Subhas Mukhopadhyay, recognizing a complicated history of scientific reporting, politics and media. While Dr. Indira Hinduja is credited in media for the “first test tube baby”, we understand that there is a team behind the work built on research previously done by other scientists.
Global urbanization has brought many advancements in our lives, from technologies in our hands to societal modernization. But with it is also comes the effects on health like rising rates in obesity, diabetes and heart health. A health issue not commonly known is that of infertility. Urbanization rates have also increased infertility rates globally, and in India, up to 14% of the Indian population is impacted by infertility. Artificial reproductive technologies have made great advancements in the last 40 years, and Dr. Indira Hinduja has been on the forefront of it in India.
Indira was born in Shikarpur in 1946 in the state of Sindh in current day Pakistan. During the continued unrest of the partition between Pakistan and India, Indira’s family migrated to Mumbai when she was only a few months old. Her family then moved to Belgaum (now Belagavi) in Karnataka where she studied in free municipal schools. During her childhood, she was unsure of what she would want to pursue. She played with the idea of being a musician, but then when she was 9, she had broken a bone and had to be admitted to the hospital. She was mesmerized by the adults in lab coats who seemed to have all the answers. Even then, it wasn’t until she was in high school that she decided to pursue medicine. Her work ethic and marks led her to joining the University of Mumbai in 1963 for medical school.
Her family moved back to Mumbai with her, and Indira received her M.B.B.S in 1968. She continued at University of Mumbai for her M.D. in obstetrics and gynaecology, finishing it in 1973. She went on to do her Diploma in Gynaecology and Obstetrics (DGO) in 1969 and her Diploma in Family Planning (DFO) in 1970 from the College of Physician and Surgeon. Indira used to commute via public bus, and every day she would see the sign for the Institute for Research in Reproductive Health (IRR), and so she walked in to find out more.
“I used to stand at this bus stop in Parel, Mumbai, every day and stare at a sign that read ‘Institute for Research in Reproductive Health’ [IRR, ICMR]. So I walked in one day and was told that they conducted research on animals.” — Indira Hinduja
By the age of 32, Indira was an MD pursuing a PhD at the National Institute for Research in Reproductive Health (IRR) in Mumbai. At IRR, Indira worked under Dr. Anand Kumar as a PhD student while she was a full-time practicing obstetrician and gynaecologist on the clinical faculty of the Seth G. S. Medical College and King Edward Memorial (KEM) Hospital in Mumbai. Indira’s thesis was titled “Human In vitro Fertilization and Embryo Transfer”, which she completed in 1988 from University of Mumbai in Applied Biology.
IVF in India
In 1978, the world had its first human born after conception by in vitro fertilization (IVF). Louise Joy Brown was born after the pioneering procedure was developed by Patrick Steptoe, Robert Edwards and Jean Purdy in Britain. This has been lauded among “the most remarkable medical breakthroughs of the 20th Century”, with the trio being awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Medicine for this work.
IVF is the process of taking the ova released during ovulation from a female (hormone therapy instructs the body to release them at a required time) and fertilizing it in a petri dish with sperm. Upon fertilization, it is implanted into the uterus where it grows as a regular pregnancy. The birth of Louise Joy Brown was the hot topic in 1978. “I had friends who were junior scientists at the institute and were doing IVF experiments on animals. It was all very exciting.” — Indira Hinduja.
Indira was mesmerized and this fixation prompted her to research IVF in India. She secured permission from the IRR to conduct trials on women there. “I would collect eggs from patients in KEM Hospital, carry them to IRR for fertilization and transfer them to the women’s uteruses.” Indira developed indigenous techniques in embryology and cell biology, combining her basic successful surgical skills with those of experimental embryology, endocrinology and cell biology.
Life changing moment
In 1980s India, it was taboo to talk about infertility. This lack of openness delayed decisions and treatments for many couples, leading to poor results. Indira had attempted IVF with 17 couples before she met the Chawdas. Shyam and Mani Chawda had 4 years of unsuccessful pregnancy attempts when they met with Indira. While they did not understand the details of the process, they knew that it was a new and expensive technique. Participating in the clinical trial was free, though they did have to pay for hormone injections.
When the Chawdas’ embryo was born in its petri dish, Indira couldn’t believe it had finally worked. The transplantation into Mani was also successful. The day Indira heard of a positive pregnancy test; she was elated. The couple had success on the first attempt! The chairman of the hospital announced the pregnancy in a conference hall where a journalist was present. The news broke into mainstream media. For 9 months, the nation waited for the birth of the IVF baby to be born. This came with its own set of challenges for Indira and the couple, answering questions on ethics from media and society.
After a regular pregnancy, Mani Chawda arrived at the KEM Hospital ready to give birth on August 6th, 1986. As the lead gynaecologist, Indira had decided that a C-section would be safer for the birth of the child, similar to the Louise’s 8 years prior. Indira roped in a colleague, the late Dr Kusum Zaveri, to assist “in case my hands started to shake”. A few hours later, Harsha Chawda was born, bringing new hope for couples across the country. At the age of 37, Indira had made history.
“I was happy the world would know that my treatment was scientifically and ethically correct. The birth was an important milestone, not only for me but in the field of medicine. It brought a ray of hope to many more mothers who conceived through IVF.” — Indira Hinduja
30 years later, when Harsha had her own child conceived “naturally”, it was delivered by Indira, proving that IVF babies can lead normal lives.
Reproductive Health Research
While working on IVF, Indira also pioneered the gamete intrafallopian transfer (GIFT) technology where the egg is fertilized in the fallopian tubes. The first GIFT baby was born on January 4th, 1988. In addition, Indira is also credited for developing an oocyte donation technique for menopausal and premature ovarian failure patients, giving the country’s first baby out of this technique on January 24th, 1991.
In 1989, Indira with her colleague, Dr. Kusum Zaveri, started the Inkus IVF Centre in southern Mumbai. Initially, they conducted their research and treatment at their facility and later established a practice at P D Hinduja Hospital in Mumbai in 2011.
Indira’s research revolves around reproductive health and understanding male and female infertility. Understanding cytogenetics (chromosomal abnormalities) in infertile men and the correlation with artificial reproductive technologies has advanced our understanding of reproduction in humans. Furthermore, her work has also paved the way into stem cell biology with pioneering work in embryonic stem cells, somatic nuclear transfer and pluripotent stem cells in adult ovaries called Very Small Embryonic-like Stem cells (VSELs). These VSELs may produce gametes which would further benefit many people with the dream of parenthood.
“I’m proud to have done my work with limited resources and training. Today, couples are more aware and knowledgeable. They decide at what stage in their life they’d like a child. The success rate in IVF has increased too, from about 13% of couples to about 55%, in my experience.” — Indira Hinduja
Till date, Indira has helped over 15,000 couples with IVF treatment alone!
Indira, beyond the research
Indira says that patience and passion have to drive your goal. Being prepared in your mind to achieve it should give you the confidence to pursue it. While her journey has lacked its fair share of encouragement, help, resources and funds, her grit and perseverance she says has been from her role model, her mother. While professional lives tend to take over, Indira does ask us to evaluate our priorities with personal and professional lives. Decide each day who needs you first, your family or your profession, and then give them the time.
Indira’s work has achieved her many awards, including Lifetime Achievement Award by Federation of Obstetrics and Gynaecological Society of India (1999); Dhanvantari Award (2000); and the Padma Shri (2011). She has over 114 scientific publications in many national and international journals, and her work has been revered across the globe.
1946 — born in Pakistan; moves to India
1963 — joins University of Mumbai for medicine
1967 — earns M.B.B.S from University of Mumbai
1969 — earns Diploma in Gynaecology and Obstetrics
1970 — earns Diploma in Family Planning
1972 — earns M.D. in obstetrics and gynaecology
1986 — facilitates birth of Harsha Chawda
1988 — facilitates birth of first GIFT baby and earns PhD from University of Mumbai in Applied Biology
1989 — starts private practice, Inkus IVF centre
1991 — facilitates birth of first baby from oocyte donation technology
2011 — receives the Padma Shri
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About the author:
DR. ROOPALI CHAUDHARY
Content Editor Women in Science, Sci-Illustrate Stories
Dr. Chaudhary has an MSc in Genetics (University of Waterloo, Canada) studying Drosophila embryogenesis (fruit fly embryo development), and a PhD in Cellular & Molecular Biology (McMaster University, Canada) studying intestinal inflammation in a novel mouse model. She furthered her career in a 3-year post-doctoral fellowship studying the immune memory in food allergies (McMaster University, Canada). Dr. Chaudhary’s continually strives to make science accessible, be with through her edible science art (custom cakes), teaching or her outreach activities.
About the artist:
HARSHO MOHAN CHATTORAJ
Contributing Artist, Sci-Illustrate stories
Harsho Mohan Chattoraj is a graphic novelist and illustrator based in Kolkata, India. He’s worked in the comic medium for fifteen years, on individual projects and for clients in India, UK, Australia and the US. Some of his recent graphic novels include ‘ Ghosts of Kingdoms Past’, ‘Destiny Awakes’, ‘Pagla Shaib’s Grave’, ‘Hyderabad Graphic Novel’ and ‘Kolkata Kaleidoscope’. Harsho also has worked as a journalist, visualizer, storyboard artist, voice-over artist and promo producer, but has always been a fan of comics since his first dosage of ‘Asterix’ at the wee age of five.
About this series:
These are stories I wish I knew when I was growing up.
There are the stories of persistence, ingenuity, calibre, scientific achievement against all odds.
These are the stories of Indian women who were the pioneers of Science in India.
These are stories of lives that must be remembered and cherished.
Sci-Illustrate stories is proud to add a new chapter in our WIS series where through the words of the sci-illustrate team, complimented by the artwork of a very talented Indian artist Arghya Manna, we will be revisiting and highlighting the lives of some incredible Indian women in science.
— Dr. Radhika Patnala, Series Director