Genes are found in every living being. They determine whether you are going to have blue eyes or brown, whether you grow up to be a brunette or blonde.
Every gene can be classified into dominant and recessive. For example, in humans if one of the parents is tall and the other is short, inevitably their progeny will be tall. This is because the gene that determines the tall character is more dominant than the gene, which determines the short character.
Genomics is the entire process of creating gene based drugs and therapies. It starts with gene sequencing followed by its analysis and interpretation to drug development. What does one mean by gene sequencing? What does it imply for the pharma industry of the future? Can it help cut out side effects of allopathic drugs?
We start with explaining the work of the Human Genome Project and then delve on these questions. The human genome project is basically about the knowledge of the genes, how the genes manufacture the enzymes and the proteins that keep us well or occasionally cause us to fall ill.
In a human cell are chromosomes wrapped in DNA strands. The DNA in all the cells of a human body are organised into 23 pairs of chromosomes. Each chromosome contains thousands of codes for building proteins. The totality of DNA present in the cells of a species is called its genome. Hence the name ‘Human Genome Project’.
The output of the Human Genome Project is in the form of 3.2 billion letters such as ATCCGHTT… and so on. Each triplet of letters instructs machinery in a cell to pick up certain amino acids from the food that we consume. A certain number of amino acids combine to form a protein such as an enzyme for digesting food, a brain chemical that causes depression etc.
The mapping of the genome basically means sequencing of the DNA. This would enable the identification of the quality of the genes in each individual and help pharmaceutical companies to produce drugs suited to each individual for genetic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, asthma, malfunctioning of joints, obesity and even baldness.
According to Dr. Swati Piramal, Director, Nicholas Piramal, “While in the past, medicines were made to attack the symptoms of an illness, once the genetic defect that is causing the illness can be identified, then the medicine can be made to react with the gene itself.”
Genomics also has an important role to play in pharmaceutical Research & Development too. At present, pharma companies operate with a library of chemical compounds and test the efficacy of a set of compounds via phases of clinical trial first on animals and then on a set of human volunteers. Once the gene responsible can itself be identified then the chemical that reacts with the particular gene can be found. According to a study done by the consulting firm McKinsey, drug research costs can be cut down by almost 33–40%.
Quite a few of the bigger multinational drug companies such as Glaxo–Wellcome, SmithKline Beecham, and Novartis have already taken stakes in biotech companies who would commercialise human and animal healthcare discoveries based on the project’s data. While Glaxo has announced the takeover of Spectra (involved in central nervous system genomics), Novartis has a stake in Genetic Therapy and SmithKline has a collaboration with Human Genome Sciences Inc.
Among Indian companies, Nicholas Piramal has announced that it is working on a drug that would turn off the ‘thrifty gene’ which is responsible for the incidence of diabetes in India. The company has put in place a joint venture with the Council for Industrial & Scientific Research (CSIR) to study and harness genomics. Apart from Nicholas, none of the other Indian companies have made any announcements.
During the last century, it is the use of chemistry that led to discovery of new molecules for the pharmaceutical industry. This century could well belong to biology.