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The Sleeping Giant Awakens: India to Leverage IT Strength in Bioinformatics

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With about a fifth of the world’s population, India is a huge potential source of genetic information. Yet the developing nation was slow to get involved in genomics, and wasn’t among the international partners on the Human Genome Project. But now, with the human genome sequence published, government officials and industry executives are determined not to miss out on the next big developments in the new biology. Software companies in India’s “Silicon South,” scientific institutes, biotechnology companies, and pharmaceutical firms are rushing to form alliances and pursue new initiatives in bioinformatics.

The IT firms foresee a hot market in high-throughput database management. Indian software companies can provide data handling services at a significantly lower cost than in the West.

One of India’s largest IT firms, Satyam, recently announced a five-year agreement with the government-run Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology, an affiliate of India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. The goal of the partnership is to form a strategic business unit aimed at marketing database management and IT manpower services for bioinformatics on a global scale.

The Satyam/CCMB alliance followed on the heels of the International Symposium on Bioinformatics and Genomics, January 15-17, which brought US and European industry representatives to Bangalore looking for joint venture prospects. The symposium was sponsored by the Confederation of Indian Industry, AstraZeneca, and Biocon, one of India’s leading biotechnology companies. Biocon’s contract research arm, Syngene, is involved in custom software and database development, and has plans to go into SNP mining.

Meanwhile, the biotech arm of DSQ Software, headquartered in Chennai, is in the process of restructuring to spin off a genomics and bioinformatics business by April, with the goal of getting the new company onto the Nasdaq in 2002. DSQ is vacuuming up manpower, hiring more than 100 bioinformatics professionals and establishing an aggressive in-house training program as well.

Like Syngene, the business model for the new DSQ spinoff is contract research, with projects such as identifying metabolic pathways and drug targets, applying genomics to the testing of new flavors and fragrances, and developing software to optimize DNA probe design. As with database services, contract research in India is attractive because of its low cost relative to establishing research facilities and employing scientists in the West.

Nicholas Piramal, among India’s largest pharmaceutical companies, has inked a nine-year agreement with the Center for Biochemical Technology, another CSIR affiliate, to pursue functional genomics and bioinformatics in a joint venture called GenoMed. The partners plan to leverage Nicholas Piramal’s global relationships and established research and development process with CBT’s genomics programs and data bank to develop diagnostics and therapeutics for such conditions as diabetes, malaria, schizophrenia, and asthma. Projects with a unique Indian twist, such as studying the genetic basis of the ancient medical system called ayurveda, are also on the agenda.

State governments in India are vying to set up biotechnology centers, with providing incubators for new bioinformatics efforts among their goals. These centers include a 200-acre “knowledge park” near high-tech hub Hyderabad, known as Cyberabad to the digerati of the subcontinent, and also home to CCMB. Biotechnology and bioinformatics parks are also planned for Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry.

— SCC

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