My father is 89 and he’s in reasonably good health," says Dr Villoo Morawala Patell, founder and chairperson of the biotechnology company, Avesthagen, in Bangalore. Her father is among an increasing population of Parsis that seem to live long and well. World development indicators released by the World Bank and UNICEF indicate that the average life span of Indians is 66 while that of a Parsi is 75 plus.
Longevity seems to be the common factor for the 70,000-strong Parsi community in India and 20,000 spread across Iran, the Middle Eastern countries, the US and Australia. Pirojha Godrej, co-founder of the Godrej empire, died at the age of 90 in 1972. Sir Cowasjee Jehangir, the master constructor of Bombay City, lived till he was 83 and died in 1962. Homi Nuerwanji Sethna, the chemical engineer who guided the development of India’s first nuclear explosive device, died at 86. JRD Tata, one of India’s best-known industrialists and the founder of Air India, died in 1993 when he was 90. Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, the eighth chief of Army Staff and the hero of the 1971 Bangladesh War, died at 94 in 2008. India’s best-known astrologer Bejan Daruwala, at 80, is still predicting the rise and fall of political parties and the fate of the cricket World Cup.
"As a homogeneous community, Zoroastrians breed among themselves, and it is this natural selection, without hybridisation, that has increased certain genetic traits in the community, one of which manifests as longevity," explains Patell. These are the traits that the Rs 100-crore Avestagenome Project hopes to study by building a complete genealogical database of the Parsi population in India. It is the first of its kind study in the world, the results of which could have far reaching effects on the study of diseases, diagnosis and drug development.
Parsis are a homogeneous race who have managed to preserve their "cultural and genetic purity" by inbreeding. The small size of the Parsi community makes it easier to identify specific genes linked to longevity and disease, adding to the possibility of scientific research, which includes rigorous collection of data and samples. "Documented genealogical charts demonstrate an unbroken lineage for over 30 years among the majority of the Parsi community in India," says Patell.
The project began in 2007 with the long-term objective of creating a database of the genealogy and epidemiology of the Parsi community. The project aims at determining the genetic basis of longevity, the genetic component of human disease and archiving the Parsi population for a biological analysis to develop drug targets and molecular biomarkers for predictive, preventive and personalised healthcare. "The first step involves the collection of blood samples from volunteers in the community," says Dr Sami Guzder, head of science and innovation at Avesthagen.
The process involves data collection with a lengthy questionnaire about the complete medical, social and cultural history of the volunteer. Blood is collected for RNA, DNA and archival purposes besides cells, plasma and serum collection. The project will include genomic analysis that involves studying of genes and their association with disorders and longevity. Other steps include proteomic analysis (the study of the development of biosignatures for early disease detection, clinical diagnosis and therapy), metabolomic profiling and immoralisation of peripheral blood mononuclear cells from blood samples to ensure a permanent source of cells for drug discovery research in the future.
"We should be able to draw many conclusions by 2013. The pilot study on breast cancer has already thrown up several answers," says Patell. "The study on breast cancer (Parsis are more prone to breast cancer than non-Parsi women) was conducted on 24 women and has been able to identify biomarkers. These early markets have the potential to become valid markers if they are substantiated by larger studies," adds Guzder. He says that there will be a time in the not-too-distant future when a woman will know if she is prone to breast cancer with just a blood test instead of waiting for the cancer to physically manifest in her body and then be identified by a mammogram.
The results of the project will also tell us why Parsis enjoy good health as they grow older.