India partners to fast track biotech

S. Natesh at the launch of the DBT/Wellcome Trust/India Fellowship Programme. Credit: Wellcome Trust

India is embarking on a series of foreign tie-ups to boost research and train manpower for its burgeoning biotech industry. The latest scheme, a £160 million jointly funded partnership over ten years between the London-based Wellcome Trust and India's Department of Biotechnology (DBT), is the latest example of the partnership model pursued by the Indian government to strengthen its biotech base. The joint program will provide 75 fellowships each year designed to attract the best Indian biomedical scientists working abroad. Last year, the Indian government and Stanford University, California, launched a five-year $4.8-million 'biodesign program' aimed at turning Indian doctors and engineers into medical device inventors and impelling India's biomedical technology industry, says Rajiv Doshi, the program's executive director at Stanford. Canada also pledged Ca$5 ($4.3) million for a fund to support plant biotech research, and another joint fund was set up with €3 ($4) million from the European Commission to support agricultural biotech research in April 2008. An Indo-Norwegian alliance has been launched to focus on vaccines, and a bioinformatics collaboration with Japan is on the cards. An $11.5 million Indo-Australian joint fund has been supporting public and private sector researchers since 2006 in the fields of stem cells, vaccines and transgenic crops. Academic scientists have benefited, but the fruits of these alliances have yet to flow to companies, says Prasanta Ghosh, former adviser to DBT and now managing director of New Delhi-based KEE GAD Biogen, a biopharma company. This is a wasted opportunity considering the expected growth in biotech activity. According to the London-based consultancy firm KPMG, biopharma already constitutes about 70% of the domestic biotech industry, and they predict biotech business will grow to $5 billion by 2010 from $2 billion last year. At present, Indian firms are only producing copies of established biologic drugs such as recombinant insulin, interferon alpha and erythropoietin and starting to move into monoclonal antibodies and recombinant vaccines. But a DBT five-year plan approved last year gives the highest priority to new biological entity discovery. The KMPG report says a few companies like Glenmark Pharmaceuticals are already breaking into the novel biologicals space. “In the past most of our programs were aimed at academic collaborations,” says S. Natesh, head of DBT's international division. “Our new calls for proposals, hopefully, will bring in industrial collaboration.” The Indian government also expects to expand opportunities for research and training once its $10 million regional biotech center being set up near New Delhi in partnership with UNESCO is ready.

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Jayaraman, K. India partners to fast track biotech. Nat Biotechnol 26, 1202 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/nbt1108-1202

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