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Advances in technology provide an effective tool for improving pharma access
Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Chairperson and Managing Director of Biocon, elaborates on the company's revolutionary breakthroughs in the recent years and pinpoints what needs to be done to give impetus to the pharma industry in India.
Has technology created a level playing field in the pharmaceutical area and helped improve pharma access?
Advances in technology provide a very effective tool for improving pharma access and thus reducing healthcare disparities across the globe. Currently, technology is not being effectively leveraged to create a level playing field in terms of pharma access. For example, insulin, despite its universal availability for the last 97 years, it is yet to be widely accessible.
Biocon is driven by the belief that the pharmaceuticals industry has a humanitarian responsibility to enable access to essential drugs for patients. In keeping with this, we have, over the last 15 years, delivered 2 billion doses of insulin to patients in the developing world on an embedded affordability platform.
Recently, we announced our commitment to enabling universal access to high-quality insulin by offering recombinant human Insulin (rh-Insulin) at less than 10 US cents/day for procurement by governments in low and middle-income countries (LMICs).
While we do our part, all stakeholders - the government, corporates and non-profits - need to come together and leverage technology effectively to expand access to essential medicine like insulin in all regions of the world.
What would you categorise as the biggest biotech success story in recent times?
One of the biggest biotech success stories in recent times is the application of Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-cell (CAR-T) immunotherapy in cancer treatment, which is significantly extending survival for cancer patients without the negative side effects of traditional chemotherapy.
It is currently expensive and only a handful of patients in the West can afford it. Therefore, I have spearheaded the creation of a new company called Immuneel, formed on philanthropic capital and with an initial platform of about $25 million, to bring this treatment to India.
Is there a development that particularly excites you in terms of its global impact?
Pollution caused by the indiscriminate use of plastics is one of the greatest environmental challenges facing the world today and needs to be addressed urgently.
Biocon would like to lead the way in replacing disposable plastic pens with reusable pens for insulin products. Disposable pens are generally more convenient as you do not need to load any cartridges, but they cost more to use and also contribute to a significant amount of medical waste.
When do you believe Biocon will be ready to launch novel biologicals?
Biocon has already launched two novel biologics in India, and we are working to take our innovative therapies to global markets.
We had embarked on an IP-driven strategy of novel drug development in the early 2000s, when the prevailing business ethos of the Indian pharma industry centred on manufacturing generic medicines.
It was a huge scientific risk because we decided to start our novel molecules journey with a complex entity: a monoclonal antibody. The result was Nimotuzumab, which we introduced as India's first novel indigenously produced monoclonal antibody, BIOMAb EGFR®, in 2006, targeted at head and neck cancer. Thousands of patients who previously could not afford treatment now had access to a life-saving biologic therapy at an affordable price point.
Through Itolizumab, our novel anti-CD6 antibody, we were able to offer affordable biologic therapy to psoriasis patients in India when we launched it as ALZUMAb™ in 2013. We have licensed the molecule to US-based Equillium for development. They are now conducting clinical trials with Itolizumab in the treatment of acute Graft-Versus-Host Disease (aGVHD), severe asthma and lupus nephritis.
Our quest for a game-changing delivery method for insulin led Biocon to clinically validate Insulin Tregopil, a first-in-class oral insulin molecule. JDRF, a leading US organisation funding Type 1 diabetes research and advocacy worldwide, has come forward to support our plans to study our Tregopil in people with Type 1 diabetes and trials are scheduled to start soon.
What would be your caveats for any new entrepreneur keen on setting up an international venture in India?
India has emerged as the third largest ecosystem for start-ups in the world. We have the potential to deliver innovation at scale, but the biggest challenge is to fund start-ups to scale up. Bengaluru has almost 700 life science start-ups but the lack of venture funding and access to capital markets is preventing these companies from scaling up. There is a growing trend to establish a presence in the US to be able to raise funds from the highly networked and mature US market. Consequently, India loses out on its innovation quotient.
While the government is doing its bit by giving the seed capital for start-ups, for the long-term risk capital, we are yet to see the emergence of an ecosystem in India where venture capitalists (VCs) start investing in innovation-driven enterprises. I believe this will happen gradually when a few success stories start emerging. VCs in India today prefer information technology-led start-ups, which are of much lower risk and more predictable rather than a gestational business-like life tech.
Moreover, India still lacks scale in terms of advanced laboratories, supportive infrastructure for scale-up and commercialisation, and an ecosystem that enables seamless transfer of knowledge into practical, technology-based commercial solutions.