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Biotech, India and the X chromosome

THE ANNUAL convention of the American Biotechnology Industry Organization, termed BIO-2003, was held in Washington DC during June 22-25 and had several interesting features worth commenting on. About 16,000 biotech company executives, scientists, equipment vendors, state, regional and national representatives participated in the convention.

President Bush thought it worth his while to come and address the delegates. The governors of at least four states of the US, the Prime Minister of the Province of Saskatchewan, Canada, the Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand, the Commerce Ministers of UK, Germany and Italy, and the Ambassador of Malawi came and forged various kinds of linkages and struck business and technological deals. Countries from just about every continent of the globe had their stalls, exhibiting their wares, making presentations and giving away free gifts ranging from pens to bags, snacks, wine and even lotteries for DVD players, digital cameras and a car. The event was ideal for showing off technical capabilities, new products, striking collaborations and new initiatives. It is a pity India did not have a big presence there since as the magazine The Economist notes, India is a global player in biotechnology — with almost 200 firms, big and small, and with the increasing involvement of more and more state governments in this blossoming area. In the event, the only State Government that found it fit to send its Minister and Secretary was Andhra Pradesh. Shri Gopala Krishna Reddy, Minister of Biotechnology, and Mr. B. P. Acharya, Industries Secretary, A. P. used the opportunity effectively to forge biotechnology links with Saskatchewan, Iowa, Maryland and Thailand. Apart from the stall of the AP State Biotech Park, India was represented by stalls of the Karnataka State Biotech initiative, and of the firms Biocon India, Avestagen, Tata Consultancy Services and Jubilant Biotech. I cannot escape the feeling that India could have impressed the delegates with its success in the area through more stalls and through the presence and participation of our Science Minister, and the Union Government Secretary of the Department of Biotechnology. We should certainly do so at the 2004 Convention in California.

An interesting point to note was the fact that besides a stall by Astra Zeneca and a dinner by Pfizer, no big pharmaceutical companies were present. On the other hand, one could see small biotech firms of yesterday having grown into the big league. Amgen appears to be the leader of the bunch, with a revenue in the year 2002 of US $5500 million. Their drug `Aranesp', for treating side effects of cancer, is expected to be approved by the US government's Food and Drug Administration shortly. Second in the list is Genentech ($2720 million) which is developing `Avastin' for colon and other cancers. Then there are Sereno ($1280 million), who are getting ready with the anticancer drug `Proleukin', Biogen ($1150 million) with their `Amevive' for psoriasis, Genzyme General ($1080 million) with `Renagal' to treat kidney failure, Medimmune ($850 million) with the first influenza vaccine that can be administered through the nasal route, called `FluMist', Biovail ($788 million) who are developing `Cardizem' for high blood pressure and heart disease, and the new kid in the block — Gilead (which has doubled its revenue in one year, to $467 million in 2002) with their `Viread' for AIDS. Tenth in the US list is the company called IDEC Pharmaceuticals ($404 million) who have a drug called `Zevalin' against the cancer termed lymphoma. All these drugs are either recently approved or one in advanced stages of development — and the news has led to an upsurge in the value of biotech shares in recent weeks.

It is seen from the above list that US biotech firms are largely targeting cancer and other systemic diseases. In this context, what our Indian biotech companies are doing appears to be both relevant and niche-area in approach — specialising in marketing vaccines, cytokines, monoclonal antibodies, enzymes, and hormones like insulin. These products are needed, and at affordable costs, for the Indian patient. Plus, they are also exportable to many other countries of the globe, as already some of our biotech firms have discovered to their joy. Working on these products also offers them a chance to tie up with agencies such as WHO, Gates Foundation and Medicine sans Frontiers for distribution across the globe to the needy. It is thus not only good business but also a way to earn goodwill through commitment.

Two other points that are of interest from the convention have to do with (a) bioinformatics and (b) manpower training. Recall the sudden boom that we witnessed in India soon after the human genome project was declared successful in the year 2000.

Several companies believed that they could make a mark and much money by providing bioinformatics services with the belief that their prior expertise in information technology (IT) can be quickly applied to bioinformatics.

Many companies even enticed students with short and long-term courses (for a hefty fee, of course), promising exciting and immediate employment in the field. The Bio-2003 convention pricked this bubble fair and square and reiterated the obvious.

To wit, bioinformatics as a stand-alone service rarely exists; most biotech companies have their own in-house bioinformatics services and rarely contract it out. Only firms with special expertise (e.g., TCS, Strand, Ocimum) can flourish while the rest fade away.

The second point that came out eloquently was the recruitment of college students as apprentices or trainees in biotech firms during vacation time, or even as part of their curricular program — the so called academia industry interaction. This mode is tried only in a handful of institutions and universities in India (BITS, CBT/IGIB, CDFD, SKDU) — and needs to be expanded far more widely. Only then will we have talented and skilled biotechnology (BT) professionals in the country, and can take on global BT in a self-assured and confident way.

Finally, just about the time of the convention came the views that the human Y chromosome has been read and analyzed in detail. The Y chromosome is a male property, women have the X chromosome. While the X is yet to be read at the same detail as the Y, we already know that is larger in size and perhaps has more genes than the mere 80 that the human Y does. Once the X is read, we might perhaps understand what makes women stronger, live longer and cope with physiological stress better — and perhaps why biotechnology in India is rich with women!

This predominance of the X chromosome in Indian biotech was seen sharply in the Washington Convention — where we had Kiran Mazumdar Shaw (Biocon India, leading the CII delegation), Sharmila Mande (TCS), Villoo Patell (Avestagen), Manju Bansal (ABIB), Sandhya Tewari (CII), Ruchi Malhotra (Ernst & Young) and Lakshmi Venkatesan (Opportunia). If Deepanwita Chattopadhyaya (ICICI KP) had also come as planned, the Xs would have been more than the Ys; as it stood, the score was equal. This led me to list out more Xs in the Indian Biotech scene, and behold! Leading the lot is the Queen Bee — Manju Sharma (Secretary DBT) and her group (Seema Wahab, Suman Govil, Shobha Khilnani, Renu Swarup, Bindu Dey, Hamida Abdi, Alka Sharma, Suchita Ninawe, Shailja Gupta, Meenakshi Munshi, Rajalakshmi, and until recently Amita Biswas). And then in Industry, we have Swati Piramal, Renuka Datla, Mahima Datla, Firoza Parikh, Janaki Babu, Suchitra Ella, Purnima Sharma.

I am sure I have missed several names and rush to apologize, but I cannot forget Professor Kunthala Jayaraman (who encouraged many industrial houses to enter BT) and Dr. Sheela Bhide, IAS (who was responsible to start the Andhra Pradesh Biotech Park). It is clear that BT is not just a "guy thing", as many other industries in India are!

D. Balasubramanian

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