Last Summer, Pradip K. Bhatnagar returned to his native India after more than 35 years in the U.S., leaving GlaxoSmithKline to take the helm of new drug discovery at Ranbaxy, India's largest pharmaceutical company. Although the decision has come with a few unpleasant side effects-for instance, his 2.5-mile commute can take up to an hour, and his wife and kids have chosen to remain in Pennsylvania-Bhatnagar has no regrets about his decision.
"Indian pharma is on the cusp of exponential growth," he says. "The facilities offered here are excellent, and the opportunities are unparalleled." Ranbaxy now has 120 master's- and Ph.D.-level chemists working in discovery and plans to double its discovery staff in the next few years. They are searching for leads in infection, metabolic disorders, urology, and inflammation.
Buoyed by India's recent laws recognizing international pharmaceutical patents, more than a dozen Indian companies have launched new drug discovery programs or reinvigorated existing ones. The scientific challenges that these nascent programs are providing, along with state-of-the-art laboratories and attractive salary packages, are luring seasoned Indian medicinal chemists like Bhatnagar back home.
"Industrial R&D has been weak in India because of intellectual property concerns," notes Ram Vishwakarma, who heads medicinal chemistry efforts at Nicholas Piramal's two-year-old R&D center in Mumbai. Piramal is becoming one of India's top drug companies. The average Indian pharma company invests just 2-4% in R&D, whereas multinational companies typically spend around 14-20%, he notes. With the new patent regime, however, "there is new energy in Indian pharma to put money into R&D," he says. "It's likely to be the basis of our survival."
Piramal's R&D center currently houses 45 medicinal chemists focused on oncology, diabetes, and anti-inflammatory diseases. Vishwakarma tells C&EN he expects to hire a substantial number of Ph.D.-level chemists and biologists in the next few years. Most, like newly returned Senior Group Leader Meenakshi Sivakumar, will come with international experience. Sivakumar says she was drawn by the opportunity to be close to home yet do "more satisfying, more challenging sort of work" in a medicinal chemistry group.
The opportunity to lead discovery research was what tempted Sudershan Arora, now vice president for new chemical entity discovery at Mumbai-based Lupin, to give up opportunities in the U.S. in favor of his native India. He came to Lupin two years ago, after a three-year stint at Ranbaxy first brought him back to India. In 2001, Lupin built an R&D center in the hills outside of Pune and put $18 million into R&D in 2004-05, accounting for 3.5% of sales. Arora's wife and kids are in the U.S., but the challenges and opportunities presented at Lupin have convinced him to stay in India.
Traditionally an herbal medicines company, Lupin continues to try to convert medicinal plant knowledge into proprietary pharmaceuticals. But increasingly, Lupin is setting its sights on the discovery of new chemical entities. The company's team of 27 medicinal chemists is also searching for leads for diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis and will double in size this year, Arora says.
Lupin and Ranbaxy are not alone. Hyderabad-based Dr. Reddy's well-established drug discovery program now has a staff of 120 master's- and Ph.D.-level medicinal chemists in its state-of-the-art discovery lab and hopes to hire another 10 to 20 researchers in the next year. They are hunting for treatments for diabetes, cardiovascular disorders, cancer, and infectious diseases.
New discovery programs are cropping up across the country, including at Hyderabad-based bulk drug manufacturer Matrix, which launched a small discovery program just nine months ago. It currently has 18 master's- and Ph.D.-level chemists working to generate antidiabetic, antiasthmatic, and antiobesity candidates and will soon move its discovery team into a new state-of-the-art facility and more than double its staff, according to Chief Scientific Officer B. Gopalan.
These and other Indian discovery labs hoping to lure medicinal chemists from abroad may soon have more competition as multinational pharmaceutical companies begin to build discovery outposts in India.
German pharma firm Altana has built a new state-of-the-art drug discovery lab in suburban Mumbai, joining the firm's research campuses in Boston and Constance, Germany. Altana has hired just 10 master's- and Ph.D.-level chemists in Mumbai, but that number will grow to 70 in the next year or so, according to Felix Reutter, the director of chemical research at the site. They will focus on early drug discovery for gastrointestinal and respiratory diseases as well as oncology, he notes.
"India is a prime location for doing discovery," explains Antal K. Hajos, the site's managing director. Even more important than the well-publicized lower labor costs, he says, "there's key chemical talent here, and we hope that expanding our discovery efforts into India will infuse creativity into R&D."
Indeed, access to local scientific talent was one of the primary reasons AstraZeneca chose to open a full-service $10 million tuberculosis drug discovery outpost in Bangalore in 2001, notes Tanjore Balganesh, head of research at the facility. India is home to both skilled synthetic chemists and a vibrant community of tuberculosis researchers, he says. At the same time, the company hopes to meet a local medical need: "India bears 30% of the global tuberculosis burden," he explains.
AstraZeneca's Bangalore facility has a staff of 80, including a still-growing team of 25 master's- and Ph.D.-level medicinal chemists, and is fully integrated into AstraZeneca's global discovery efforts. The opportunity to work in a multinational drug discovery lab in India has wooed many experienced medicinal chemists and other scientists back to AstraZeneca from the West, Balganesh notes. Chemistry Group Leader Santosh Nandan says he was drawn back to India "by the opportunity to do combichem in a multinational drug company."
Competition from multinational firms for the top medicinal chemistry talent may not be the only challenge facing Indian pharma. Expatriates are returning to take positions in Indian drug firms, but it's still only a trickle. "It's not so easy to attract Western-trained Indian chemists," notes Javed Iqbal, who leads Dr. Reddy's discovery efforts.
Santanu Maitra, who returned to India to join Dr. Reddy's drug discovery group last year after training in the U.S. and spending several years in the pharmaceutical industry there, was won over by the combination of an opportunity to work in drug discovery and the chance to be closer to his family. But the decision has not been without adjustments. "Daily life is not easy here," he says. In some ways, his standard of living has improved-his family has a driver and household help now-but his family misses certain freedoms, such as taking weekend road trips. He suggests that less red tape, better pay, and increased professionalism would go a long way toward coaxing more scientists to return.