Guest Column | January 30, 2024

Indo-U.S. Collaboration Can Accelerate Drug Discovery — Here's How

By Jitendra Kumar, Ph.D., managing director, Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC)

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As we all know, reducing the time and cost of drug discovery through innovation is essential for global healthcare and the pharmaceutical industry's long-term viability. While drug development costs undeniably play a role in the elevated medical expenses in the U.S., they are just one component of a multifaceted issue.

Americans pay nearly four times more for pharmaceutical drugs than citizens in other developed countries, with an average spending of $963 per person on prescription drugs. High salaries for medical professionals, exemplified by an average annual salary of $235,930 for family doctors and $310,640 for emergency room physicians, further contribute to the cost. Profit-driven hospital care, constituting 31% of healthcare costs, and defensive medical practices, leading to costly tests like an average MRI costing of $580, also add to the financial burden.1

Collaborations between the U.S. and India have the potential to address this need for innovation. These collaborations facilitate knowledge sharing, allowing for the exchange of expertise, resources, and knowledge, leading to more effective and efficient drug discovery. The integration of advanced technologies such as continuous bioprocessing, bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology resulting from these collaborations can propel technological advancements in the drug discovery process. We have already seen successful collaborations take shape, in particular with nanotechnology.

Adopting Nanotechnology In Drug Discovery

Nanotechnology, specifically the use of nanoparticles, has made significant contributions to drug discovery and development. Nanotechnology provides innovative solutions, offering researchers greater analytical capacity, novel delivery methods, diagnostics, improved data quality, and reduced sample volumes in the storage and screening of molecular, cell, and tissue libraries.

The nanomedicine market is predicted2 to grow to $597.8 billion in 2032 from $210.3 million in 2022. Collaborative efforts, such as the Indo-U.S. Joint Centre for Nanobiotechnology, bridge nanotechnology and biomedical sciences3, bringing together leaders from the U.S. (Harvard and MIT) and India (NCBS, JNCASR, and CCMB) to explore the cross-impact of nanotechnology on biology.  

Researchers from the Institute of Nano Science & Technology (INST)4 in India have successfully devised an industry-friendly and cost-effective nanotechnology-based method for producing the antiepileptic drug rufinamide. This method is scalable to inexpensive industrial processes. The catalytic process developed by the INST team is not only highly efficient but also economically viable and environmentally friendly. A patent has been filed for this groundbreaking process.

Currently, only a limited number of companies produce the expensive rufinamide, a lifelong medication vital for epilepsy patients. Therefore, the catalytic process innovated by the INST team presents a significant opportunity for active pharmaceutical ingredient manufacturing companies. They can adopt this process for large-scale production, leading to a reduction in the overall cost of the drug in the U.S. and for the world.

Collaborating In Drug Development

The India-U.S. Collaborative Research Grants on Vaccine Adjuvant Development is a successful partnership between the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) in India and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the U.S. This initiative, under the Indo-U.S. Vaccine Action Program (VAP), supports the discovery, development, and preclinical testing of vaccine adjuvants. It promotes collaboration between Indian and U.S. investigators, accelerating progress in adjuvant and vaccine research. The collaborative success stories within the adjuvant program encompass the creation of Covaxin, an indigenous inactivated COVID-19 vaccine developed by Bharat Biotech. This vaccine integrates the adjuvant Alhydroxiquim-II, a product of the U.S.-based ViroVax, which originated from the NIAID's adjuvant program.5

The recent implementation arrangement between India’s DBT and the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) lays the foundation6 for further collaboration between the two countries in biotechnology innovation and biomanufacturing. The initiative will advance collaborative research, thereby empowering biotechnology industries and promoting the bioeconomies of India and the U.S. The potential to address global challenges, including climate mitigation and energy goals, through biotechnology innovation and biomanufacturing is evident.

India's strong foundation in biotechnology innovation, research, and manufacturing, supported by public-private partnerships, collaborations, and initiatives, positions it as a key player in shaping the future of drug development. While large pharma companies undertake the bulk of drug development globally, cutting-edge innovation is commonly done by startups enabled by access to modern, well-equipped incubation centers. Many of these startups work closely with academia, innovating and exploring the commercial potential of nanotechnology, bioinformatics, and continuous bioprocessing.

India's commitment to supporting drug discovery is evident through its initiatives, such as BIRAC's BioNEST and E-YUVA Centers, under which 75 bio-incubation centers and 12 E-YUVA centers have been established. These centers provide specialized local common access infrastructure, a network of experts, mentors, and a supportive environment for industry, investors, and other stakeholders, promoting biotech entrepreneurship and innovations in drug discovery and development.

This, coupled with funding support from BIRAC through its Biotech Ignition Grant (BIG), Biotechnology Industry Promotion Programme (BIPP), Small Industries Business Research Initiative (SIBRI), and other such funding, has fueled innovations in drug discovery. The BIG scheme has emerged as a cornerstone for fostering innovation and entrepreneurship within the Indian biotechnology sector, achieving remarkable success in its endeavors. With over 90 startups securing funding exceeding $122 million, and mentoring relationships established with more than 10,000 individuals, BIG has significantly fueled the growth of innovative ventures. Moreover, the scheme has actively supported over 950 startups, providing a robust foundation for their development and contributing to the overall advancement of the biotechnology landscape in India.7 For example: Recognizing the efforts of AIC-IIITH in supporting disabled people, SunQulp Tech has been selected for a grant of approximately $60,000 from BIG.8

Since early-stage venture funding is still in very nascent stages in India, it will be quite interesting to see whether bigger companies can collaborate with startups in terms of strategic funding, acquisitions and mergers, or corporate venture funding. BIRAC has already provided a very good platform for startups and bigger biotech companies to collaborate in a meaningful and mutually beneficial way. For instance, the recent acquisition of IP rights of Levim Biotech by Glenmark and acquisition of Tergene by Aurobindo Pharma stand out on this front.

India-U.S. collaborations have the potential to unlock the transformative capabilities of nanotechnology, continuous bioprocessing, and bioinformatics. These collaborations not only accelerate the discovery and development of innovative treatments but also contribute significantly to global healthcare advancements, setting the stage for a new era in biotechnology.



About the Author:

Jitendra Kumar, Ph.D., managing director of BIRAC, holds a Ph.D. in biotechnology and an MBA from the Fisher College of Business, Ohio State University. With more than 20 years of experience, he has spearheaded research and innovation in life sciences. Currently, he oversees BIRAC's strategic initiatives, fostering collaborations and driving advancements in the biotechnology sector. His global exposure includes impactful roles in the U.S., contributing to his dynamic leadership at the intersection of biotechnology and entrepreneurship.