‘No reason why governments can’t fund antibiotics development’

The TNQ Distinguished Lectures in the Life Sciences took place on Saturday in J.N. Tata auditorium.

The TNQ Distinguished Lectures in the Life Sciences took place on Saturday in J.N. Tata auditorium.   | Photo Credit: V Sreenivasa Murthy

There has been no new class of antibiotics for two or three decades: Nobel laureate Venki Ramakrishnan

There is no reason why governments, non-profit organisations and international organisations cannot fund the development of antibiotics, said biologist and Nobel laureate Venki Ramakrishnan on Saturday.

Part of the problem is that new-generation antibiotics are expensive because of the huge investment on clinical trials; the pool of patients is small; and it will not be a lifelong drug — “the ideal patient for a pharmaceutical company is a diabetic with high blood pressure and cholesterol and possibly with impotence as well,” Dr. Ramakrishnan said, in answer to a question from the audience after his lecture ‘My Adventures in the Ribosome’ as part of the TNQ Distinguished Lectures in the Life Sciences.

Dr. Ramakrishnan said the business model for developing new antibiotics is flawed. A company, founded by the late American biochemist and Nobel laureate Thomas Steitz and chemist Peter Moore, produced several inhibitors that seemed promising. “But to go from an inhibitor to a drug is a very long and expensive process." They decided to launch an IPO, but when they tried to go public, they couldn't command a share price that would allow the investors to even get back what they put in, so the IPO was withdrawn.

Ironically, the same month, “a company whose main product was the ability to share gossip and fake news very easily was worth many 100 billion dollars,” said Dr. Ramakrishnan, adding “I don’t have a Facebook account.”

In his lecture, he spoke of his journey unravelling the complex structure of the ribosome — “the mother of all molecules made in every cell” as he once described it, which synthesises all the thousands of types of proteins in every cell. The breakthrough took place when he created a pure preparation of the ribosome, which could make crystals that could be studied at very high resolutions.

Dr. Ramakrishnan spoke of the need for job opportunities in biotechnology. “If you look at most countries, they spend three to four times of what India spends on research and development. India’s contribution is about 0.7%. And of the 0.7%, only 25% is by private R&D.” The OECD average, he said, is 2.4%, of which more than two-thirds — the majority — is private R&D.

“What this does is that it allows large industrial job opportunities — most people cannot be faculty members; there aren’t enough faculty jobs. And so they have to have industrial jobs to absorb them in a meaningful way.”

Bengaluru, he said, is one of the exceptions where there is a large biotech sector. “But you probably need a dozen of these.”

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2020 12:33:28 AM |

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