Home / Opinion / India and the future of life sciences innovation

India is known for many wonderful things. On the international stage, it is recognized as the fastest-growing economy in the world, and is well-known for its culture, exquisite cuisine and sense of community and family, among many other qualities. One thing it is less known for is the discovery and development of new medicines.

I think this will soon change.

The Indian pharmaceutical industry is a world leader in bringing generic drugs to the market in a cost-effective way. Additionally, many Western pharmaceutical companies have established small-molecule development and manufacturing in India. More recently, Indian pharma companies have demonstrated the capability to develop biosimilars for global healthcare markets. These activities are highly valuable, providing essential and established medicines at more affordable prices to people around the world.

However, having worked for decades in multinational research and development of new drugs, I think that the future of India will go beyond generics and biosimilars.There are many attractive features that the existing Indian ecosystem can offer the life sciences industry and I believe that India will eventually play a critical role in the advancement of innovative medicines.

Improvements in genome sequencing have led to a better understanding of what causes and drives the progression of disease. Therapies based on translational strategies rationally target the mechanisms underlying the disease. Precision medicine combines both these ideals, by getting the right drug to the right patient at the right time. It is here that I see opportunities for globally operating Indian pharmaceutical companies to address unmet medical needs worldwide.

Companies that are based in India but have substantial US operations are perfect examples of such innovators. Such companies are discovering new, cutting-edge precision medicines using state-of-the-art technologies, and hastening exploratory clinical studies in collaboration with major medical centres in India that provide unique access to treatment-naive patients. Public-private partnerships are further unlocking the potential of Indian biomedical research and development.

And people are taking notice.

The environment for highly innovative and cost-effective biomedical research has changed markedly. Today, there is much more time and cost pressure on the research and development of innovative medicines, particularly with regard to preclinical and early clinical research.

Big Western pharma is facing challenges in this regard. While the industry has the capacity and capability to develop drugs and commercialize them, and the economies of scale to do so profitably, these organizations often lack the agility and flexibility to innovate constantly in the increasingly competitive realm of life sciences discovery.

Many of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world are relying on early-stage collaboration with start-up biotech firms and established academic labs to manage the inherently risky prospect of drug innovation.

This type of early innovation will always be high-risk, but more importantly, will face progressive challenges of managing that risk in a nimble way. Essentially, it’s about finding methods and processes that accelerate success and help unsuccessful projects “fail faster". The key to nimble risk management will flow from innovation hypotheses grounded in translational medicine, patient stratification and value propositions that convince investors, payers and regulators of the potential improvement and superiority in standards of care.

Sixty years ago, the total number of physicians in India was less than 50,000; today there has been a 16-fold increase to nearly 800,000 registered medical practitioners. Public health centres, the foundation of rural healthcare in the country, have increased from less than 100 to more than 23,000. This explosive growth is fertile ground for thought leaders, investors, regulators and medical centres to collaborate on developing the capabilities to nurture the type of start-up environment that will focus on innovation and better ways of healthcare delivery, with an eye on long-run rather than short-term profitability.

To capitalize on these opportunities, I think there are a number of steps that India can take. For example, incentives for start-up biotech firms, and commitment to rigorous global compliance standards that help increase trust in the Indian life sciences industry.

These trends are under way globally, but, in some respects, have yet to be initiated by experts with roots in India. Thought leaders must embrace a mindset that celebrates risk-taking and shows unwavering commitment to long-term objectives. By making investments in risky but nonetheless highly valuable emerging science, the global life sciences landscape will undergo an evolution as India transforms itself into a centre of excellence.

We have seen monumental progress in science and technology in recent years, most notably in the field of immuno-oncology for some of the hardest-to-treat cancers. These innovations didn’t happen in isolation, but emerged from collaborative networks. Today, innovation occurs in a global village, not in a single country. With so much to offer the life sciences, India is poised to become a dominant player. The potential for this groundswell to materialize is happening today. It’s exciting to be a part of it.

Kurt Stoeckli is president and chief scientific officer at Glenmark Pharmaceuticals.

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