New Delhi: The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), India’s largest group of publicly funded research laboratories, has hired AstraZeneca India’s research and development (R&D) head, T. Balganesh, to head its open-source drug discovery (OSDD) project.
While AstraZeneca India’s interests are largely in drug manufacturing, it has an R&D centre in Bangalore that is attempting to develop new drugs for tuberculosis and malaria. Balganesh’s entry will, according to a senior CSIR official, help professionalize and accelerate future, potential clinical trials of prospective molecules.
An internal CSIR communique viewed by Mint said Balganesh was appointed a distinguished scientist, OSDD, which will now be a separate entity with greater functional autonomy. The same senior CSIR official, who didn’t want to be identified, said Balganesh will head the entity.
“Generally, we hear of government scientists quitting for the corporate sector. This is something in the reverse, and this will give us the advantage of getting expertise from a corporate, R&D perspective,” said Zakir Thomas, project director, OSDD.
Samir Brahmachari, director general at CSIR, and Balganesh didn’t respond to telephone calls seeking comment.
CSIR’s OSDD is an attempt of developing cheap drugs for neglected diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria by farming out (and funding) key steps in the drug discovery process, such as mapping potential drug targets, laboratory tests, and pre-clinical and clinical trials among several entities. None of the entities can claim exclusive patent rights, but because companies do not have to make huge and risky investments in research, they are more likely to agree to non-exclusive marketing licensing arrangements with CSIR and thus keep the cost of drugs low.
Since April, OSDD has been in discussions with two pharma companies and an international panel of experts that will decide whether its molecules are worth conducting clinical trials on.
Tuberculosis is one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality worldwide, and claims around 1.7 million lives annually. One in five of these victims is found in India, which also harbours the highest number of tuberculosis patients when compared with other countries.
Generally, drug companies expend money and effort on promising molecules till the pre-clinical or animal-trial stage, and outsource tests on human subjects to professional contract research organizations (CROs), a booming Rs 1,500 crore business in India. The few promising molecules for diseases such as tuberculosis and cholera languish in the pre-clinical trial stages. These diseases generally afflict poor people in tropical countries who can’t afford the cost of these drugs. The drugs, therefore, translate into very little commercial benefit for companies.
The current treatment for tuberculosis, directly observed short-course chemotherapy, is old, slow and inefficient by today’s standards, and multi -drug-resistant strains of the bacterium have appeared during the past 15 years.
Internationally, too, there is now greater access to funds for tuberculosis research. AstraZeneca Plc itself has got a $1 million (Rs 4,42 crore) grant from the Wellcome Trust in the UK and, along with its French rival Sanofi-Aventis and several research labs a joint €16 million (Rs 100.8 crore) grant from the European Union to develop new chemical compounds to tackle tuberculosis.