an area of the map for world news.
March 2002 issue of
World Press Review
(VOL. 49, No. 3)
Science and Technology
Biotech: The Third Wave
Kalshian, with B.R. Srikanth and Charubala Annuncio, Outlook
(independent weekly), New Delhi, India, Jan. 14, 2002
Medchal, a sleepy,
sylvan backwater 40 kilometers from Hyderabad, is the sort of
idyll often romanticized on celluloid. But Medchal also hides
a surreal sophisticationa state-of-the-art lab where white-robed
scientists are busy tweaking genes to fashion life-saving drugs.
Its here that Koduru Ishwari Varaprasad achieved with
panache what bigpharma couldnt. In 1997, he
and his Argonauts created Indias first genetically engineered
(GE) hepatitis B vaccine: Shantha Biotechs 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 Indias placid
biotech waters, setting off ripples that are now waves. Start-ups
are mushrooming. The Department of Biotechnology has announced
an ambitious 10-year visionvaccines for cholera, malaria,
and tuberculosis; biofertilizers, biopesticides, transgenic
crops; and gene therapy trials against cancer. State governmentsnotably
those in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradeshare
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.
Indias 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 natures
blank slates, capable of evolving into any human cell type.
They are thus vital to replacing dysfunctional cells to treat
debilitating diseases like Alzheimers 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 eyes cornea, causes blindness. Doctors at Hyderabads
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 years 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 Babelwhich genes
make what proteins and what duties these proteins perform.
The Hyderabad-based Center for Cellular and Molecular Biologys
(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 Delhis 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 disciplinebio-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
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
Indias 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 havent the faintest
idea what its 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.