Thursday, May 8, 2008

Banking on IT for Drug Discovery

Banking on IT for Drug Discovery

DISCOVERING India’s first ‘new medicine’ is perhaps the greatest dream of the country’s medical scientists. Leading Indian companies like Dr Reddy’s and Ranbaxy are yet to stun the world with an innovative medicine, despite a decade or more of research efforts. Their global success, so far, has come from copycat generic drugs. So then, why is Supreet Deshpande, who trained to be a mechanical engineer, sporting a happy smile?

For one, his radically different approach to the pharmaceutical industry has begun to pay off. Shunning the easy street to generic drugs business, that so many Indian companies have embraced, he started a purely research-based drug firm five years ago. His venture, VLife Sciences, has managed to discover 12 potential drugs, two of them entirely new and the remaining tweaked forms of existing drugs capable of treating diseases different from the ones initially targeted. And he hopes to take his first finished drug to the market within three or four years.

Mr Deshpande, a graduate from Bhopal University, stands out in his basic approach to business itself. His motto: The solution to a scientific problem may well be a non-scientific one. Says Mr Deshpande, “Look, I was never a scientist and I am not a scientist. But what I have realised in the course of the past five years is that a non-scientific perspective to a scientific problem is as important as a scientific perspective to a scientific problem... Common sense is more valuable than anything else, whether it is in farm equipment, technology or pharmaceuticals.”


This difference in approach is evident as you walk into his research lab. There are no scientists in white robes, no one handling tubes with plastic gloves and masked faces, but a small team of people busy at their computers. Here, every scientific experiment is simulated on computers.

After several years with Bajaj Auto, Mr Deshpande joined Mahindra British Telecom in Pune in 2001, where he was responsible for exploring new growth opportunities for the company. “We had a small group of PhDs in science who were hibernating in that organisation, trying to develop software capabilities to implement complex algorithm. These guys were working in a corner and nobody paid any attention to them,” explains Mr Deshpande.

With their help, Mr Deshpande quickly identified pharma as an area where technology could play a significant role. “I was reading a lot of articles on the incapability of technology to deliver the desired results in the pharma sector... And the thing that did the trick for me was a significant lack of common sense while employing technologies in the pharma sector... Any decision was so much driven by science, that sometime people forgot why they are doing sciences. Is it for building more knowledge or for building an application that is beneficial to the patient?”

But he says Mahindra British Telecom did not share his enthusiasm about the project. He left the company, and decided to take his project forward on his own. “When I moved out, I spent six months at home, creating a blue print of what technology interventions I would think logical from a non-scientist perspective into the pharmaceutical discovery process,” says Mr Deshpande.

In 2002, he created VLife Sciences Technologies Pvt. Ltd and invested all his savings into his new company. At that time, his friend Atul Aslekar, a trained engineer then working in Japan, joined Mr Deshpande, adding his savings to the company’s initial capital. Initially, Mr Deshpande’s idea was to develop an algorithm that would enable pharma companies to use computer aided techniques to design new molecules. While pharma companies around the world already use similar software for a part of their research, Mr Deshpande’s ambition was to develop a software that would give him results so close to reality, that it alone could relied on, to identify potential candidates.

“This allows a lot of speed, in a day you can make hundred thousand molecules, which is not possible in a lab,” says Mr Deshpande. Once the molecule has been designed on the computer, it is chemically synthesised and tested on animals. “If that data is initially what we had expected, we go further, but if it is not then we study experimental results and go back improve its design,” explains Mr Deshpande. The software was then sold to several academic institutions, including IITs.

In 2005, the company started its own research programme. In two years, the company was able to come up with 12 potential drugs. Out of these 12 drugs, 10 are actually existing drugs, but that no one thought to use to treat a different disease, like its diabetic wound candidate, expected to enter the first phase of clinical trials on humans shortly.

In April 2006 Kotak Mahindra private equity fund invested in the company. Though the amount of the investment was not disclosed, then Vlife Sciences was valued at around $5 million.

Last month, the company was reorganised into two separate companies. VLife Sciences spun off its research division into a wholly owned subsidiary, NovaLead Pharma.

The company has focused its research effort on very specific areas. “We have thought it differently,” says Mr Deshpande. At a time when new drug applications are under increasing scrutiny from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), NovaLead is working on drugs for which the FDA provides ‘fast-track approvals’ and a limited amount of clinical trials are required. To qualify, these drugs must be effective in the treatment of either rare diseases, which are markets too small for large pharma companies to invest, or diseases where the existing treatments are not effective.

“We have spent only eight hundred thousands dollars to take our diabetic wound drug to the first phase of clinical trials,” says Mr Deshpande. The pre-clinical studies were conducted in Boston by Dr Krishna Menon, a doctor who has to his credit three drugs, including Eli Lilly’s cancer drug Gemzar. (Incidentally he is also on the board of the company). The company is confident of taking the drug to market within three to four years.

Article Resource:

Author: Noemie Bisserbe is the Chief Editor in the The Economic Times, Mumbai and the article appeared in one of their successful columns on Entrepreneurship/Start-ups called "Starship Enterprise".

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