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Route to the mystery drug

chandigarh Updated: Apr 13, 2014 11:27 IST
Madhusheel Arora

There are happy and interesting coincidences to discover when you start researching. The recent acquisition of Ranbaxy by Sun Pharmaceuticals for $4-billion (around 24,000 crore) afforded me one such mystery.

I ended up learning that we could have had a medicine used in surgery named after Chandigarh, but commercialisation was shelved for unexplained reasons and we lost our chance to international recognition. What’s more, Ranbaxy funded some of the initial studies that led to the drug. Here’s the route that led me to the mystery.

While I wanted to write on the problems that afflicted Ranbaxy and led to its changing ownership from India to Japan and now back to another Indian firm, what was interesting to observe was that how little we know of the making of a drug, even the bare minimum.

Ranbaxy’s problems, however, are well-publicised, with four of its plants now barred from supplying to the US, the most lucrative market in the world. So, what value did Sun Pharmaceuticals see in it?

Sanjay Bajaj, MD, Select Biosciences India Private Ltd, says: “I cannot comment on any company. We must understand that this is a business decision and it seems a given that the processes will be set right sooner or later. Indian pharmaceutical industry is growing, but we need originality that could be the key to long-term growth.”

He adds that drug discovery is a complex process and there are mandates to ensure quality with the USFDA’s recent tightening of norms needing attention across the board.

So, where does the real value of a pharmaceutical firm sit?

Bajaj agrees that it is the degree of focus on research and development, though packaging and marketing also matter. The cost of the development of single new drug is estimated at around $1 billion (`6,000 crore), 25% of Ranbaxy’s current value, and then again, there is the risk that the discovery might never be commercialised.

Is there any credence to my view that we know little of relevance in this regard. Why do we take the medicines we take?

Who developed that medicine that brings us back to health and is a source of employment of millions around the world and in India, especially in the small-scale contract manufacturing firms, making drugs for the large well-known companies?

To this, I was referred to Harkishan Singh, part of the team that prepared the drug named after Chandigarh, Chandonium Iodide, later rechristened as Canducuronium Iodide by the WHO.

“I have no idea why no Indian drug company commercialised and released the drug (muscle relaxant) we developed, even though the scientific data and the drug was released at a function by the then prime minister PV Narasimha Rao in February 1996,”says Singh.

Why was this discovery not turned into a medicine will, now, forever, remain a mystery? This is something that our pharma industry will perhaps chew on.