Thursday, February 13, 2014

Spurring innovation in Indian pharma-where do we start?

I had an interesting email discussion with well-known pharma blogger Derek Lowe, about the state of innovation in Indian pharma, and what kind of drug discovery model would work best for us.

The post itself, as well as the comments to this post are quite thought-provoking, and generally touch on two major points:

1. It's a bad idea to try and adopt the same pharma model as the big Western companies.
This should be pretty obvious, given that the global pharma industry is in a downturn, with empty pipelines, expensive failures and expiring patents. Which is not to say that a company run along those lines would definitely fail, but it's probably not the best use of our money. What should our model be, in that case? Suggestions ranged from having government-funded initiatives (like the Open Source Drug Discovery programme), to focusing on traditional Indian medicine like Ayurveda, soliciting funds from NGOs, working on disease areas most relevant to our country, and so on. Another more radical solution was that we stop looking at small molecules altogether, and focus on biologics instead. All of these approaches have their own merits, and it would probably need a combination of all of these and more to develop a flourishing drug discovery ecosystem in India.

2. It's too risky a business for Indians, who aren't very entrepreneurial anyway.
This is one argument I don't completely buy. Yes, in practical terms, it makes a lot more sense to try and build a software startup, since you don't need much by way of startup capital, and the chances of quickly building a revenue-generating product are higher. But there's no shortage of entrepreneurs here, and I've personally heard of several interesting start-ups in the life sciences space. What they really need, however, is solid financial support, whether it's from venture capitalists or even from the government. Drug discovery is an inherently risky, time-consuming and capital-intensive business which requires long-term vision from investors. Perhaps the way to make it more attractive an investment is to start small, with more modest goals-pick a small but relevant problem to solve. R&D can be balanced with, say, a generic drug/biologics production programme (Biocon is probably the best-known example) to offset risk.

To me, the idea that India continues to largely depend on foreign companies to do all the messy work of drug discovery is a dangerous one. There are so many contentious issues to deal with - drug pricing and patent validity being two big ones - that this relationship cannot continue to remain one-sided. We already have several big players in the pharma space, which is good news. But rather than letting the status quo continue undisturbed, it's a good time to start thinking about what we can do with our resources to allow more drugs to be developed in India.

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