For Your Treatment Only

twitter-logo Goutam Das        Print Edition: Feb 3, 2013

LOCATION: Bangalore
BUSINESS: Biotech/cancer research
FOUNDED IN December 2009
LED BY: Mallik Sundaram, Pradip K. Majumder
COOL QUOTIENT: The company's technology platform, Oncoprint, analyses multiple drugs to arrive at the best fit for a cancer patient in just seven days

Two Indian-origin scientists in the United States felt the world needed to rethink conventional drug therapies for cancer patients. Pradip K. Majumder, a professor of oncology at the Harvard Medical School, and Mallik Sundaram, a faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, formed a company called Mitra Lifesciences in 2008, but the technology they envisioned needed to be tested on a large group of patients.

India called. They moved to Bangalore, dissolved Mitra Lifesciences and in 2009, incorporated a new entity in India, Mitra Biotech. The company has since stirred much debate in scientific circles with its technology platform, Oncoprint, which analyses - in just seven days - a range of drugs to arrive at the right fit for a cancer patient.

"Cancer is a genetic disease. Every cancer is different. There is a big mismatch today between the drug and the patient," says Majumder. He cites the example of HER2+ cancer, a type of breast cancer. All HER2+ patients are administered a drug called Herceptin, which has a multi-billion dollar market. "The problem is that if we give the medicine to all HER2+ patients, only 30 to 40 per cent respond and are cured. Our technology accurately predicts which patients Herceptin will work on. Other patients can opt for other drugs," he adds. Such an approach is also cost effective, since anti-cancer drugs are all very expensive. Depending on the type of cancer, a patient could spend up to Rs 50 lakh a year.

Mitra Biotech's technology of arriving at a suitable drug is different from approaches of many other scientists and companies in the segment. Some companies are focusing on what is called a 'biomarker-based' approach to figure out the likelihood of response to a particular treatment. Biomarkers are substances found in the blood that help determine a disease. Biomarkers are better suited to find out which drugs may not work in a group of patients rather than trying to predict which ones may work best on a patient.

Some companies, such as US-based Champions Oncology, use the 'xenograft mouse-based' diagnostic model to determine personalised cancer treatment - the human tumour is transplanted in mice where it is allowed to grow and then tested with different drugs. The xenograft model, asserts Majumdar, has its limitations since it takes three to six months for the tumour to grow inside the mice and by then the similarity with the human tumour may be lost. And not all human tumours grow in mice.

Mitra's technology is based on a real-time experiment. The company cultures the cancer tumour in an incubator, giving it the same micro-environment on a laboratory plate it would have inside the body. Drugs are then introduced into the tumour and each of them tested for the response. An algorithm collates all the data, compares the drugs and ranks them based on the suitability for a particular patient.

Mitra's only customer so far has been HealthCare Global Enterprises (HCG), a cancer-care provider with a network of 25 centres across the country. Founder and Chairman Dr. B.S. Ajaikumar, a reputed radiation oncologist, believes Mitra is special. "The idea is very good. It could be path-breaking if it works out," he says.

The early response from patients has been encouraging, but the company still has a long way to go, adds Ajaikumar. "It is a study in progress and we are still collecting the data and doing comparative studies," he says. Mitra currently charges $600 (Rs 33,000) from a patient. HCG says using Mitra's approach is a voluntary offer made to patients. The company says it gets about 40 patients per quarter and expects to end 2012/13 with revenues of $100,000 to $120,000. Next year, it expects at least 500 patients in India.

The start-up is now eyeing the more lucrative US market as well. It is validating its technology with the Cancer Treatment Centre of America, a forprofit hospital chain. "The business delta is much higher outside India. For the same technology, we can bill patients at $4,000," Majumder says.

There are very few Indian biotech companies that have been able to make it big abroad. Mitra, whose tag line explains its name - "your friend in the fight against cancer" - may just reverse the trend.

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