In the mid-1990s, one of India's current biotech
icon was a dejected man. He had just exited a joint venture with his
friend in Hyderabad, which was supplying some high tech equipments to
the country's armed forces. To get over the gloom he went on a vacation
to the Silicon Valley in the US. And to kill boredom, he attended a
conference on recombinant vaccines.
This got him interested and he tried to talk to the leading biotech
company in the San Francisco Bay Area to license the rDNA technology.
The company's managers ridiculed him for even thinking about making
such high tech products in India. However, Mr Varaprasad Rao did not
take the slight easily, came back to India, enlisted the help of
scientists at the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB),
Hyderabad. In 1997, his company, Shantha Biotechnics launched the first
India-made rDNA product, a hepatitis-B vaccine, much to the amazement
of the world.
India's biotech entrepreneurs have not looked back since then. From a
country which imported all its modern biological drugs, India is now a
net exporter of these products.
The May 2011 BioSpectrum cover story, “Biotech Drugs: The Wave Arrives”
is a tribute to the long and difficult journey made by a set of
intrepid entrepreneurs against all odds. They went about their mission
to make the world sit up and notice them in a methodical manner.
Currently, India's regulators have approved the use of 20 recombinant
DNA products in the domestic market. There are 15 Indian companies
manufacturing these. The surpluses are exported to over 100 countries.
The world doubted India's ability to make rDNA products. But now, more
than half of the global requirement for hepatitis-B vaccine is supplied
by a handful of Indian biotech companies. The best is yet to come.
There are 72 products in the pipeline.
While we rejoice at this Indian success story, the biotech industry,
globally, has provided yet another breakthrough to treat hepatitis-C,
caused by contaminated blood. The US regulator, FDA has almost
approved, as I write this editorial in late April, Boceprevir, the
hepatitis-C drug from Merck & Co. This advanced drug, called as
protease inhibitor, produces an enzyme that blocks the replication of
the hepatitis-C virus and thus controls its spread. Merck's drug is
expected to improve treatment efficiency by more than 30 percent and
also cut down the medication time from the current one-year regiment to
a few months. The US regulator is also likely to approve a similar
hepatitis-C drug, Telaprevir from Vertex Pharmaceuticals.
Millions of people die every year due to hepatitis-C infection and the
numbers are more in developing nations. The drug could be soon
available in India too.
There is some more good news. After two years of lull, India's life
science companies are heading to the financial market with their
initial public offering (IPO). Three companies, Intas Pharma, Arch
Pharmalabs and Calyx Chemicals, have filed their red herring prospectus
with the regulator, paving the way for the public offering. This
indicates the confidence of the industry as well a shift in investor
interest away from the traditional sectors. Many biotech companies
could benefit from the investor interest as they could use the current
positive investment climate to raise resources for boosting their
research and manufacturing capabilities.