At Hyderabad’s Deccan Park, home to more than 20,000 young workers at technology companies and call centres, M. Vidyasagar is a n exception. A bespectacled six-footer, the former defence researcher who once worked with President Kalam, doesn’t write computer code.
He tweaks and uses code to predict medicines for a decades-long health issue across tropical regions of Africa and Asia: malaria.
Executive vice-president of the life sciences and healthcare solutions practice at India’s biggest software services company, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), Vidyasagar is one among a new set of innovative malaria research scientists in India, a country fighting the disease for decades.
Vidyasagar’s team of 35 computer engineers and medical researchers are using brute computing power to discover the genes in malaria-causing parasites and to predict how these genes will react to drugs. The TCS approach is the first gene-based approach for malaria drugs, says the 50-year-old research head. The experimental verification of the predictions is currently in advanced stages.
Following this, the technology is expected to be ready to be worked upon by pharmaceuticals makers who will then ready better-targeted drugs for malaria-affected millions. Vidyasagar and other TCS executives would not confirm it, but an industry insider, who does not want to be identified, says Lupin, Cipla and Alkem are among the five drug makers interested in the anti-malaria technology.
A senior executive from Alkem said the company is looking for new technologies to strengthen its anti-malaria portfolio, while Lupin and Cipla declined to confirm their interest in the TCS-developed drug discovery process. Currently, Mumbai- based Ipca Labs is the leader in the Rs70 crore anti-malaria market in India .
Malaria, the primary villain behind large holes in public health budgets, infects half-a-billion people in the world, mostly those in the tropical regions of Asia and Africa. Two million of these die, half in poor Africa with little access to antibiotics and chloroquine, an anti-malarial medication. Closer home, the cost of some two million people getting affected by malaria is estimated at $1 billion (Rs4,420 crore) in India. Another 10 million take preventive medicines.
The market for medicines used to treat malaria is estimated at $500 million (Rs2,210 crore), a tiny percentage of the global pharmaceutical market. The prices of such drugs are controlled by governments in Asian and African countries, often leading global pharmaceutical majors to shy away from their development.
Most of the global drugs development to combat malaria has been focused on Plasmodium falciparum, one of the four strains of malaria viruses, due to the high mortality caused by its infection. A first-of-its-kind vaccine being developed by Delhi’s International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology together with Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech International focuses on two malaria viruses: falciparum and vivax, the less-lethal strain, more prevalent in India.
Experts are closely watching the vaccine, currently being tested on animals. “An effective malarial vaccine is one of the toughest challenges facing modern science. The difficulty in developing new malarial vaccines and drugs is because of the parasite’s complex life cycle, multiplicity of strains and the global spread of drug resistant variants,” G. Padmanabhan, a former director of Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, said in a phone interview from Bangalore.
A research team under Padmanabhan has combined artemesinin, a Chinese herbal drug, and turmeric derivative curcumin. The institute has filed a patent for the combination drug and is soon advancing to placebo trials in humans. It expects to launch the drug in two years.