"Industry Will Not Support Open-Ended Science, So Govt Must"

Aradhna Wal | CNN-News18 | December 20, 2016

On December 11, News18 exposed how India’s clinical trials and drug discovery process is skewed towards diseases like cancer while ignoring the top killers of the country like TB, diarrhea and Kala Azar. Responding to that, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Director-General of the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) told News18 there was a need to support indigenous research in India. In this interview to News18’s Aradhna Wal, Dr Swaminathan says India needs a 10-year vision on drug research. She feels there is an increasing awareness for supporting indigenous research and that scientists speaking out has helped the case. Excerpts:

Q) You tweeted recently that ICMR will work with pharma to develop drugs, especially for neglected diseases and to strengthen trial capacity. Could you elaborate?

ICMR is developing several initiatives, both generic and specific. An example of the specific work is the Tuberculosis Research Consortium we’ve set up. It’s a partnership between government ministries, private industries, foundations, trusts and global partners. We’re working with them on diagnostics, drugs and vaccines. Most of these discoveries, of vaccine or of drug candidates, happen in academic laboratories. However, it often takes a scientist years to move things further because such institutes don’t have the wherewithal and facilities of an R&D company. Funding is also a constraint. That’s why public sector drug development takes too long and you need your private sector partner who has facilities and is willing to put in resources. However, the industry is willing to come in only when there is proof of principle.

As such, the industry is risk averse, they don’t want to spend a lot on the basic kind of research which scientists do for years to reach a particular point. We have these early discoveries happening and then we have the industry that is willing to take up something that has a proof of concept. A recent example is the dengue vaccine and drug being developed by Dr. Naveen Khanna at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB). It was stuck for a while and they were desperately looking for industry partner till Sun Pharma stepped up for a partnership...