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From the March 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 3)

Science and Technology

Biotech: The Third Wave

Rakesh Kalshian, with B.R. Srikanth and Charubala Annuncio, Outlook (independent weekly), New Delhi, India, Jan. 14, 2002

The face of medicine's future? (Image: Berkeley Lab Physical Biosciences Division).
Medchal, a sleepy, sylvan backwater 40 kilometers from Hyderabad, is the sort of idyll often romanticized on celluloid. But Medchal also hides a surreal sophistication—a state-of-the-art lab where white-robed scientists are busy tweaking genes to fashion life-saving drugs.

It’s here that Koduru Ishwari Varaprasad achieved with panache what “bigpharma” couldn’t. In 1997, he and his Argonauts created India’s first genetically engineered (GE) hepatitis B vaccine: Shantha Biotech’s Shanvac B. It captured 40 percent of the market and unleashed a price war that four years and more competitors later has resulted in the vaccine being available for 50 rupees (US$1) per dose!

Shanvac was the first stone that dropped into India’s placid biotech waters, setting off ripples that are now waves. Start-ups are mushrooming. The Department of Biotechnology has announced an ambitious 10-year vision—vaccines for cholera, malaria, and tuberculosis; biofertilizers, biopesticides, transgenic crops; and gene therapy trials against cancer. State governments—notably those in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh—are bending over backward to lure firms into their “genome valleys.” Foreign firms and research institutes are rushing in. The Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corp. and the U.S. firm Genome Technologies are collaborating to set up a 4.5-billion rupee genomics and bioinformatics project in Chennai.

India’s biotech boom could even dwarf software in coming years if you trust the most optimistic projections. Much of our $2.5-billion biotech market relies on low-end products like vaccines, but experts predict that as more start-ups come up, that could change dramatically.

Indian biotechnology received its strongest shot in the arm when the U.S. National Institutes of Health announced that Reliance Life Sciences (RLS) and the National Center for Biological Sciences, both based in Bangalore, would be among the 10 institutions worldwide eligible for federal funding for stem-cell research. Embryonic stem-cell research is hot because these are nature’s blank slates, capable of evolving into any human cell type. They are thus vital to replacing dysfunctional cells to treat debilitating diseases like Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis.

Labs around the country are abuzz. RLS expects its work on skin grafts to move the fastest. Research on adult stem cells is also hot. Damage to the limbus, which generates the ocular surface of the eye’s cornea, causes blindness. Doctors at Hyderabad’s L.V. Prasad Eye Institute have succeeded in culturing the tissue and grafting it onto a diseased eye. This treatment is available only in the United States and Taiwan.

Last year’s unraveling of how our 30,000-odd genes are spelled has cre-ated a huge amount of data. Scientists need to make sense of this genetic Tower of Babel—which genes make what proteins and what duties these proteins perform.

The Hyderabad-based Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology’s (CCMB) 85-million rupee research facility, the first of its kind in Asia, will hunt for new genes and proteins that may help identify the genetic root of diseases like cancer. Says CCMB director Lalji Singh: “India offers a unique storehouse of clinical samples of unparalleled diversity in terms of dietary habits, genetics, and the spectrum of diseases.”

New Delhi’s Center for Biochemical Technology (CBT), too, is in hot pursuit of such a dictionary. Early this year, it joined up with the Nicholas Piramal group to exploit human genome data for the development of the next generation of medicine. Says CBT director Samir Brahmachari: “The Piramal Group will couple these with their own resources to develop drugs for diseases like diabetes, asthma, and schizophrenia.”

The need to dive into this ocean of genetic data for hidden treasures has created a whole new discipline—bio-informatics, the science of using information technology (IT) to decipher the genomic jumble. Thanks to a flourishing IT industry, bioinformatics is today the darling of venture capitalists, drug firms, and, of course, IT majors. So, Satyam Computers has signed a five-year alliance with CCMB to create, store, and annotate genetic databases, and it is angling for contracts from global bigpharma to sequence genes and build protein catalogs. Strand Genomics, a Bangalore-based bio-informatics start-up, is designing tools to accelerate drug discovery.

The ultimate products of these efforts are still some years away. Meanwhile, companies like Shantha are working on several other recombinant-DNA drugs. In February, Shantha hopes to launch Shanferon, an interferon (anti-cancer) drug, at one-fourth the imported price. Another promising start-up is Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech International, which, in 1998, launched its GE hepatitis vaccine Revac.

There are some, though, who feel there is too much hype about India’s biotech revolution. Says P.M. Bhargava, who founded CCMB and now advises biotech aspirants: “Lalji and I meet at least one company per week, and most haven’t the faintest idea what it’s about. All just want quick returns. They think BT is like IT.”

Virender Chauhan, director of the New Delhi-based International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotech-nology, is blunt in his analysis: “Almost all the biotech products so far have been indigenous versions of existing products. It is beyond any Indian drug firm to even think of bringing out a novel product, let alone new drugs.”

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