Nov. 15, 2006 | The explosion of drug discovery and development operations in India is epitomized by the success of companies such as GVK Biosciences (see sidebar); Strand Genomics, and Jubilant Biosys (JBL). Quietly building on a decade of experience in computational and bio-IT fields, JBL is rapidly pushing into a suite of drug discovery and development activities.
Although JBL has traditionally shunned what CEO Sri Mosur calls “unnecessary publicity,” that may be changing, thanks to high-profile big pharma partnerships with Eli Lilly and others, and continual efforts to attract the top Indian scientists back home. Jubilant’s maturing expertise in chemistry, bioinformatics, drug discovery, and now preclinical and clinical research is providing a sturdy platform to be “a very big enabler to pharma companies,” says Mosur.
JBL was founded in 2001 as a subsidiary of Jubilant Organosys, a pharmaceutical manufacturing powerhouse in India with facilities in Europe and the US. “We’re becoming #1 in pyridine chemistry in the world with a huge customer base from Japan to US,” says Mosur. “We have delivered great manufacturing efficiency. They come to us — manufacturing is driven by cost efficiencies. It’s not just cheaper labor, it’s also technology and capital efficiency.”
Despite its success, Jubilant was eager to diversify into other areas, including life sciences and drug development. “The group wanted to go beyond the manufacturing space,” says Mosur. “How India gets accepted in this space was a big question because of the IP situation. So we chose IT enabling tools to enter the pharma market. We chose to be a pioneer in bioinformatics.”
In 2001, JBL was co-founded by computational chemist and chief science officer V.N. Balaji. He had set up Monsanto’s informatics operation in India four years earlier before concluding, “we should be doing this for many pharmas.” At Allergan Pharmaceuticals, Balaji’s team designed a blockbuster anti acne/psoriasis drug Tazorac (tazarotene) and helped develop others in clinical trials. From just 35 staff in 2001, JBL now boasts more than 600 employees. JBL has a formidable advisory board, which includes Salk Institute gene therapy expert Inder Verma, and structural biologist John Kuriyan from Berkeley.
Mosur spends one-third of his time criss-crossing the US like a college football coach during recruiting season, luring Indian ex-pat scientists back to Bangalore — India’s Silicon Valley. “I visit people’s homes, tell the wives how they can come back!” Mosur jokes. “Then we leverage the local talent, train them, and build them into a strong workforce.” That workforce is selected from a massive talent pool — some 65,000 well-schooled chemists graduate annually from India.
In fact, much of the JBL brain trust earned its stripes in the US. Mosur himself spent a dozen years in Chicago. The head of biology spent 18 years in the US, the head of medicinal chemistry 11. And the head of cheminformatics was previously with Tripos and Ingenuity.
JBL uses IT as the platform to progress drug discovery and development. “There’s a whole lot of data every scientist wants to look at — chemistry, gene targets, gene families,” says Mosur. “Biologists want to look at pathways and how they relate to changes. Biomarkers... how do you integrate all that to provide the best visualization tools to manage this information in this humongous industry?”
JBL has assembled a team built from both bio- and cheminformatics, which Jonathan Northrup, JBL’s senior vice president of commercial operations and business development, says is a fairly unique concept. “India is a very chemistry-centric country, so this is pretty innovative.”
By laterally integrating its collection of databases, JBL has linkage and visualization of kinase, pathway and biomarker databases. The IT staff currently numbers 54, which will double by the end of 2006. JBL programmers develop plug-ins, revamp customer systems, and integrate custom databases. Alliances with other vendors include Spotfire, Accelrys, and Ariadne, with more expected.
Until the launch of JBL, Mosur says, “Medicinal chemistry never existed in India — the industry focused on process chemistry.” Developing expertise in medicinal chemistry was key if Jubilant was going to successfully move into the drug discovery and development space.
“We didn’t then, and don’t now, want to start our own programs, we want to be the best collaborative partner,” says Mosur. “[Jubilant management] was averse to putting a new drug in the market — the mindset from a manufacturing background is not to risk yourself that much. Having said that, we wanted to get closer to the value chain.”
And so after building an IT and informatics platform in biology and chemistry, JBL established the first group in India with a business focus around medicinal and synthetic chemistry with integrated discovery biology. In 2003, the Jubilant Chemsys subsidiary was launched near Delhi, devoted to medicinal chemistry services and, with JBL, providing a full hit-to-lead portfolio including biology support.
“We work with nine pharmas and 17 biotechs,” says Mosur, who is also managing director of Chemsys. “We brought in senior medicinal chemists, Indians who have come back. We took organic chemists and started training them, making them think like medicinal chemists. There were just three people when we started, now 197 people, of which 10 percent can be termed real medicinal chemists!”
Earlier this year, JBL signed a 5-year deal with Eli Lilly for customized, high-level discovery services including informatics and IT support. “We collaborate to develop enabling IT tools for discovery as well as doing drug discovery in specific therapeutic areas,” says Mosur.
Northrup says clients aren’t just flocking to India for cost or efficiency. “There’s also the element of tapping talent around the world, and the element of accelerating the process by being able to work 24/7 on a given program, and exploring different kinds of collaborations.” For example, US-based crystallographers can load data onto a server when they leave work, which the Indians can pursue as they arrive.
About 75 percent of Jubilant’s business is customized and collaborative. That can mean mutually agreeing on a target and taking it to proof of concept, with guidance from the pharma partner. The remaining 25 percent is making a product or tool, or offering specific libraries. But Mosur says just offering compound libraries “dilutes the value” of JBL’s expertise. The value comes in providing validated hits and lead screening. “We go for medium and low throughput, and use our molecular modeling technologies to do focused libraries,” says Mosur. “We don’t want to lose that value, that knowledge.” JBL’s informatics base includes a 30-member molecular modeling group.
JBL strives to enforce constant interaction between in silico, medicinal chemistry and biology teams. “We’re seeing great results,” Mosur adds. In the functional hit-to-lead business, “I’m very proud to say we have 87 percent conversion rate for our collaborators,” says Mosur.
From its beginnings in the IT space, focusing on rational drug design, JBL has integrated wet-lab capabilities to complement the in silico effort. Northrup thinks this helps JBL stand out. “It’s rare you find operations taking the target, screening the compounds that could be responsive to that target based on substantial data that’s been culled over years and years, and taking that and making a compound, testing it to see if its good, and getting feedback to what is the validity of these results”
Another big pharma client asked JBL to build a biomarker database to use in its target validation efforts. “We created an infrastructure for them, brought in all the company information and used it effectively for one of the benchmarking drugs in the cancer area.” The pharma client has even suggested JBL develop a business out of it.
Jubilant recently established a clinical subsidiary called Jubilant Clinsys in Delhi and New Jersey, with 130 staff in the US and more than 50 beds outside New Delhi. Further expansion in Europe is planned.
Most progressive companies have visited India and China, and they’ve all read “The World is Flat.” But Northrup argues that, “with economic pressures increasingly being felt at the end of the pipeline, the industry is moving from one focused only on innovation to one where innovation must be done with a great deal of efficiency.”
And India is certainly jubilant about that.
Email Kevin Davies.
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