Hyderabad: Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic, technology has emerged at the forefront of equitable, precise, and effective healthcare delivery, becoming an essential cog in the wheel of India’s healthcare industry. We now live in a world where medical advancements and technological advancements traverse hand in hand, and healthcare can not be imagined without the effective deployment of new-age technology.
The BioAsia 2023 convention saw many discussions that were deliberated and informed about these medical advancements facilitated by the IT sector. During his keynote address at the 20th edition of BioAsia in Hyderabad, Dr Vas Narasimhan, CEO, Novartis described Norvatis’ journey to be a leader in the chemicals industry as a fortunate happenstance where they discovered essential chemicals for health through their dye-making process. Equating this journey of Novartis with that of the pharmaceutical industry in general, Dr Narasimhan said, “Looking at some of the first laboratories where we made some of the most fundamental discoveries early on to discover that chemicals could impact human life, you can see how these serendipitous discoveries happen. It is incredible to think that this was the kind of laboratory where we found the first medicines by accident, chemicals that could change the force of certain diseases. And then you come to today, where we are in a whole new world where we’re able to fundamentally understand the biology of the cell and reshape that cell. That’s the story of our industry.”
Notifying that the pharmaceutical industry of India is now moving from a world of chemistry to a world of biologics, and cutting-edge science to transform patients’ lives, Narasimhan segued into an educational presentation about siRNA technology,“siRNA is a natural feature that has inspired a new kind of medicine that targets RNA. RNA is a copy of one section of a DNA code. Cells use RNA to construct proteins, the molecular machines that carry out a cell’s work, but some proteins can cause disease. This new kind of medicine aims to prevent disease-driving proteins from being produced. It’s like typing the code for protein into the search and delete fields of a word document, press enter, and it deletes the instructions everywhere in the cell, potentially stopping the disease at its source.”
“siRNA is this technology that was pioneered in the 1980s by scientists at MIT who later won the Nobel Prize. It was an understanding that RNA not only translates into proteins but can modulate the expression of the protein and silence them. It took 30 years of effort by many biotech companies and artists as well to bring siRNA therapies to life,” he added.
Relaying that Novartis has successfully developed a siRNA medicine as well, he shared, “We have one approved for cardiovascular disease. What makes these therapies so powerful is that rather than using oral drugs that you have to take day in and day out, you can take medicines every six months and see dramatic reductions in things like cholesterol, and maybe in the future blood pressure or other metrics as well. And you can imagine a world where you can give drugs very infrequently, sometimes once a year.” He added that the low cost of development, as siRNAs are small molecules that are chemically synthesised, making it possible to tackle cardiovascular diseases around the world at a scale that has not been witnessed before.
Dr Narasimhan also highlighted the achievements of the pharmaceutical industry that have enabled the possibility of eliminating malaria. Speaking about the quartz technology to build anti-malaria medicine, he said, “The basis of understanding of quartz comes from a 2200-year-old ancient Chinese medicine text. The scientists who won the Nobel Prize spent decades studying these facts and found that there could be a source for understanding where we could find anti-malarial drugs. This plan led to a revolution around 2000. The quartz technology helped make antimalarial medicines at scale which create the possibility of actually curing malaria in five days.”
He added, “And for Novartis, we’ve reached over one billion doses of quartz provided to patients around the world at cost, without profit. 400 million children have now been reached, showing that when we apply technology innovation to problems like malaria and then come up with access paradigms, we can have a tremendous impact on public health.” Additionally, he also pointed out that the work on leprosy is another great example of the power of technology-driven collaborative work between industries and communities to make a big difference, highlighting how Novartis donates the global supply of leprosy drugs to the world for free.
Another example shared by Dr Narasimhan to hail the industry is the therapeutic advancement that allows targeting radiation to the exact location of cancer, allowing new paradigms to open up in cancer therapy. Highlighting the various forms of therapies including immuno-oncology and CAR-T therapy that have opened up new opportunities for the Indian healthcare industry’s response to cancer, he added, “I believe over the next decades, we’ll continue to make advances and hopefully over time, get to a place where we can actually deliver cures. And that’s of course, our long-term goal as a sector and as an industry.”
Turning the focus of the audience towards neurological diseases, he stated, “The third big cause of death is disability in many parts of the world on the planet. And we know that neurodegenerative diseases among the ageing population are going to be a massive challenge for society. Some of the most difficult areas of medicine to find new therapeutics are areas of Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, ALS, and Parkinson’s. And while we’ve made progress, the progress has been challenging because understanding the real biology of the human brain is a vexing problem. Now our hope over time is we can again look at new technologies to make breakthroughs.” Supporting his statement, Dr Narasimhan highlighted how the use of multiple technologies can facilitate the response to neurological diseases. He gave an example of a structure-raising antibody linked to RNA therapeutics with the idea to direct that RNA to the specific tissue in the brain which requires a therapeutic impact.
Dr Narasimhan concluded his keynote address by expressing hope that advancements in technology might open up new possibilities, whether it’s in neurodegeneration or neuromuscular diseases, to tackle these diseases at scale, and allow for the next wave of breakthroughs in medicine.