AsianScientist (Mar. 23, 2021) – A blockbuster drug is not about a billion dollars, but a billion patients. This is one of the maxims of Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founder of Biocon, India’s largest biotechnology firm. And it is the reason she sees great potential today for the industry in the region. Mazumdar-Shaw is excited by the reality of Asia housing a majority of the world’s population—a vast market eager for better drugs—alongside the exciting, contemporary shift from imitative to original research.
“Today, for the first time [in India], I’m seeing research really focusing on absolutely new concepts … cutting-edge stuff.”
In other words, India is transitioning from being the “pharmacy of the world” as the largest supplier of generics, to a genuine biotechnology innovator, taking its place alongside countries such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore. Part of this ongoing, region-wide shift involves greater clinical research on Asians. Most clinical trials to date have been conducted on Western populations.
“We know that there are genetic and ethnic differences in the way we respond to drugs and in the way drug doses are arrived at,” she said. “I think people now recognize that this [research on Asian populations] is valuable data.”
One of Biocon’s research thrusts is a big push towards biologics like monoclonal antibodies (mAbs). The company is behind BIOMAb-EGFR, India’s first indigenously-developed novel mAb, and ALZUMAb, the first therapeutic antibody targeting CD6, a T-cell transmembrane glycoprotein, to treat autoimmune diseases.
“We have started a very serious effort in bispecific fusion antibodies. We’re really looking forward to making a big success of that on top of our pipeline of molecules.”
Unlike typical mAbs which recognize a single target, bispecific antibodies can simultaneously bind to two different targets, a property that makes them particularly interesting for immune checkpoint inhibitors.
“Because our immune system is very complex, it takes a multiplexing of antibodies to really do something efficacious,” Mazumdar-Shaw explained. “We have started developing fusion bispecific antibodies combining a T-cell trap with a receptor targeting arm. The idea is to latch on to the tumor antigen and then get the T-cells to start attacking the tumor microenvironment.”
Mazumdar-Shaw has also been busy leading the way for innovative cancer therapies, most notably in making chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) technology more affordable for patients in India through Immuneel, a joint venture with oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee and venture capitalist Kush Parmar.
CAR-T therapy involves taking a patient’s own immune cells and genetically modifying them to hunt down and destroy cancer cells. Immuneel aims to offer its first CAR-T cancer therapy for US$50,000, or 20 to 40 times less than in the US.
“We believe that by working on every step of the [CAR-T] supply chain, making it like a hub-and-spoke model where you’re working with centers and hospitals rather than taking it to a central lab, we can cut down costs.”
Mazumdar-Shaw, India’s richest self-made woman, is also a study in overcoming adversity in gender-biased industries. After completing a bachelors degree in zoology in India, she studied fermentation science in Australia, graduating as a master brewer in 1975.
But because no Indian firm would hire a female brewmaster, she pivoted towards producing enzymes. Biocon’s first product in 1979 was an enzyme used to make beer less cloudy. Other early hurdles included the difficulty of obtaining financing in India as a woman.
“It’s a myth to think that women are not bold enough to run daring businesses. It’s a myth that all of us have busted over time. So I’m really surprised that the world still doesn’t get it,” Mazumdar-Shaw said recently to Twitter India.
While there is still much work to be done in ensuring equal opportunities, Mazumdar-Shaw’s success has surely helped unleash the potential of female scientists in India and beyond.
Take inspiration from Mazumdar-Shaw and other trailblazing scientists in Asia by downloading the Five Years Of The Asian Scientist 100 white paper here.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Illustration: Oi Keat Lam/Asian Scientist Magazine.
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