Bangalore: Tata Consultancy Services Ltd, or TCS, India’s largest software maker by revenue, is undergoing mutation: After clinching some impressive pharmaceutical deals in the last two years, it is now entering genetic diagnostics and medicine, one of the fastest growing biomedical sectors.
Besides developing products for leading biotech companies, such as Sequenom Inc. and Celera Genomics Group’s Celera Diagnostics, TCS is starting an open source initiative to mine the multiple genomic databases in the public domain. Open source refers to applications developed with public collaboration.
Like software, TCS reckons, even the life sciences sector would generate business from open source platforms once the initial kinks in the compatibility of publicly available databases are ironed out.
In collaboration with San Diego, California-based Sequenom, TCS has developed a broad-brush software platform that can provide digital signal processing and DNA sequence analysis for diagnostic technologies.
“We are proud of both size and quality of the software project—over 500,000 lines of code have been produced,” says Charles Cantor, chief scientific officer and co-founder of Sequenom, a Nasdaq-listed molecular diagnostics and genetic analysis product firm. This software can now be submitted to the US food and drug administration (FDA) for inclusion in diagnostic devices, he says.
Given the crucial role software plays today, it is now treated as a medical device itself and needs to be certified by FDA. One of the few firms to operate in the global software standard known as CMM-5, TCS is cashing in on its quality image in life sciences as well. Celera has chosen TCS as a partner in its high-end HIV-1 diagnostics kit called ViroSeq that tests for specific strains of the AIDS virus, necessary in deciding the cocktail of drugs to be prescribed.
Though its life sciences vertical accounted for a mere 5.5% of its $5.7 billion (Rs28,186 crore now) revenue in the last fiscal, TCS is focused on increasing the role of engineering and statistics in life sciences. “We are committed to preparing for the generational change,” says M. Vidyasagar, executive vice-president for advanced technology at TCS in Hyderabad.
TCS hopes to develop more products with Celera and Sequenom and some are already in the works. Money-wise, these may be small projects, about $1 million each, but they are industry innovators in DNA detection and related fields. “It’s a very niche domain but these companies are best in their field, so it’ll have a multiplier effect when we go to big companies…the likes of Johnson and Johnson and Eli Lilly,” says Vidyasagar. TCS already has drug discovery and allied services deals with Eli Lilly and Co., Roche Holding AG and GlaxoSmithKline Plc.
But diagnostics is a different game and is poised to play a larger role in health care. The DNA-probes-based diagnostics market is projected to reach $24.5 billion by 2015, according to market research firm Global Industry Analysts Inc.
“Diagnostics must lead to actionable clinical steps; it must save the health care system money…benefit the people,” says Cantor, who also consults for 16 biotech companies. He feels that non-invasive molecular diagnostics will meet these needs in developed and developing nations.
With this new platform, Sequenom is starting with non-invasive early detection of birth defects during pregnancy but Cantor thinks the same approach could be effective for early detection of cancer, neurodegenerative and inflammatory diseases or even transplant rejections.
“I also believe that non-invasive molecular detection will soon allow early detection of diseases that have a high influence from improper nutrition including metabolic syndrome, obesity, and type II diabetes,” he adds. Indeed, there is already evidence that these disorders may be set up during fetal development in the mother if malnourished.
There’s enormous data available in the public domain which can be searched for valuable information on diseases and drugs—but these databases are mutually incompatible. TCS, with its open source programme, which it isn’t ready to disclose yet, intends to level the field. “We’d like to clean up these databases, even if it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, so that people can easily use it,” says Vidyasagar.
His group plans to build platforms that would enable free exchange of information, allowing search for genetic patterns and gene clusters; and make them open source. This Linux-type approach, experts say, is also important to keep the original databases intact and prevent them from getting polluted by less solid data.
“Once the open source standard is set, like everybody else, we’ll also look for building business on it,” says Vidysagar. The idea, it seems, is to position its software in new-age diagnostics, somewhat in a way that chipmaker Intel Corp. did with its tactic “Intel-inside”.