Metabolic Research in India

Yesterday morning I took a break from attending the Asia-Oceanic Obesity Conference to visit the facilties of one of the largest Indian pharmaceutical companies – Piramal Health Care.

Having visited many research laboratories the world over, including facilities of global leaders like Merck, Abbott, GSK, Astra-Zeneca and others, I could not help but be impressed by what I saw at Piramal.

Their Natural Products group houses a library of over 32,000 microbial extracts including rare fungi, and 6,000 plant extracts collected across India. Their Herbal group works on leads from medicinal plants described in the ancient literature and texts of Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha (traditional Indian schools of medicine) that are extracted and screened for biological activity.

The Medicinal and Synthetic Chemistry groups build diverse collections of new molecules and synthesize these in quantities required for biological testing. The Cheminformatics group models drug-receptor and drug-drug interactions in silico, optimizing drug structures and evaluating compounds.

The company also runs a massive biological research operation engaged in gene cloning, expression and purification of therapeutic proteins, the development of cell-based assays to support discovery, and gene expression profiling to study the mechanism of action of lead drug candidates. The well-equipped Analytical Sciences department boasts a MALDI TOF/TOF, 500 and 300 MHz NMR Systems and mass spectroscopy that allow the study of protein-drug, protein-protein interactions and biomarker applications.

Piramal has a number of lead molecules in various stages of development for oncology, inflammation and metabolic diseases including obesity (which is what brought me to them in the first place).

In the afternoon, back at the conference, I sat on a panel with Philip Schauer, Francesco Rubino and David Cummings to discuss metabolic surgery – a reminder that our ability to medically treat obesity and related complications remains very limited.

It will be up to companies like Piramal (and others) to hopefully come up with new molecules that will one day make “metabolic” surgery obsolete – for now, however, surgery looks like it will remain the only effective option for many patients with severe obesity and related comorbidities. Indeed, as I will point out in my Key Note Plenary Lecture on “Obesity Pharmacotherapy: A Glimpse in the Future” tomorrow, the pharmacological pipelines, despite a few promising compounds like tesofensine or lorcaserine and a couple of novel combinations of older drugs like buproprion and naltrexone (Contrave), are by no means likely to seriously undermine the need for surgery in the foreseeable future. 

Mumbai, India