An unexpected consequence of the recent discovery of
“superbugs”, resistant to all known and most powerful antibiotic drugs,
is the keen interest in alternatives. One of the beneficiaries of this
global attention on antibiotic resistance is the renewed interest in a
forgotten or neglected phage therapies.
For more than a decade, Bangalore-based GangaGen Biotechnologies,
founded by former head of AstraZeneca India Research, Dr J
Ramachandran, has been at the forefront developing effective treatments
to antibiotic resistant bacterial infections using phage therapies.
GangaGen’s researchers have crossed the first hurdle in using viruses
(phages) that attack only harmful bacteria to develop a drug to tame a
wide variety of bugs. Prior to the discovery of the world’s first
antibiotic, penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928, doctors in many
parts of the world used phages.
The wonder drug, penicillin, and other modern antibiotics relegated
phage therapies to the background. However, GangaGen team has developed
the world’s first phage-based drug (not just a therapy), and human
clinical trials of StaphTAME, which has shown effectiveness against the
most widely prevalent bacterial infections caused in hospitals. US
regulator, FDA, has already given the go ahead for the clinical trials
GangaGen is among the less than dozen companies worldwide, whose work
on developing alternatives to antibiotics are key to safeguarding our
health in the coming decades.
While Dr Ramachandran’s zeal is helping to make some progress against
“superbugs”, the nation’s health authorities are not so
pro-active in developing a concerted plan to develop alternatives to
antibiotics. Phage therapy had its beginnings in India, when in the
late 19th century, a Canadian scientist noticed the anti-bacterial
action in stored water drawn from the river Ganga. Yet, currently there
is only a small research group, of Prof Gopal Nath and Prof. Anil
Tripathi at the Benaras Hindu University in Uttar Pradesh and Prof P K
Yadav at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, working actively on
phage therapies. This group has got a small funding of
lakh from the Department of Biotechnology (DBT). Preliminary
results from their studies indicate successful treatments using
phage-based products against some bacteria.
This BHU-JNU research group as well as GangaGen are starved of funds to
widen their scope of research. In fact, Dr Ramachandran indicated
that if more funds are available, it would be possible to speed up
product development so that effective treatments are ready if “super
bugs” go out of control in the near future.
Instead of getting worked up over the naming of one of the recent
“superbugs” as “New Delhi (NDM-1)”, our government should formulate a
National Plan to speed up research on phage therapy, and any other
suitable alternatives available to tackle growing antibiotic
crore National Phage Therapy Action Plan could be a good starting point
if the Manmohan Singh government is seriously concerned about the
health of India’s future generations.
Meanwhile, things are beginning to look up for the battered BioAgri
industry. Even as the minister-induced moratorium on Bt brinjal crop
continues, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) has
approved the field trials of two new transgenic cotton crops developed
by Dow Agrosciences and JK Agrigentics, incorporating new cry1Ac and
Cry 1EC genes. More significantly, Syngenta Biosciences has been asked
to start field trials of its genetically modified (GM) corn variety
containing cry 1AB genes. This is definitely a step forward in pursuing
the larger national goal of tapping biotechnologies for food security.
This September issue of BioSpectrum
has extensive coverage of the CRO industry which is playing an
important role in the development of tomorrow’s drugs. India’s decision
to set up a National Clinical Trials Registry is also a welcome step to
ensure better monitoring of trials and it will go a long way in
increasing public confidence in this industry.