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The Startup That Aims to Rid India of Deadly Superbug Infections and Antibiotic Resistance

“The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. There is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.”

– Alexander Fleming, the doctor who discovered penicillin (world’s first antibiotic), at his 1945 Nobel Prize lecture.

In the recent years, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has repeatedly warned that the world could be running out of options to treat common infections caused by 12 of the world’s deadliest antibiotic-resistant bacteria or “superbugs”. Every year, nearly 700,000 people die worldwide due to drug-resistant infections and, if infection-control measures are not followed and new antibiotics not developed, the casualty numbers are expected to cross 10 million people by 2050.

One of the highest health-care burdens from antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the world is carried by India.

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The country’s humongous consumption of antibiotics (highest in the world), coupled with poor sanitation and overcrowding, helps propagate and spread the mutant microbes in the environment. Sepsis caused by drug-defying germs kills tens of thousands of newborns in India every year.

This extremely serious threat to global health is what the Bengaluru-based startup Bugworks Research India is trying to tackle. Located in National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru, Bugworks is working towards finding a solution to deal with superbug infections.

Co-founded by Santanu Datta, V. Balasubramanian and Anand Anandkumar, Bugworks was born out of Cellworks Group Inc, the first company in the world to use engineering system biology simulation modelling to design novel combinations for cancer and inflammation.

The Founders: V. Balasubramanian, Anand Anandkumar and Santanu Datta (from left)

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Started in 2007 by a group of Silicon Valley veterans, Cellworks has also made the world’s largest Google traffic map for oncology pathways that is being used by medical professionals across the world to customise treatment for cancer patients.

“It was during my time at Cellworks that I realised that while research in diseases like cancer, diabetes and cardiological diseases was going well, there was a serious dearth of innovation in infection. Infections kill more people in India than any other disease. In addition to this, classical drug discovery approaches have not provided any breakthroughs in the past 10 years.In fact, no new antibiotics have been discovered in the past three decades!

Connect it to the fact that bacteria mutates every 20 minutes and you know why antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is soon going to become the biggest threat to human health. With increasing drug-resistant bacteria, we will be forced to stop organ transplantation, chemotherapy, or even the smallest surgeries. This was something that required an urgent response,” says co-founder Anand Anandkumar.

This realisation prompted Anand and Santanu to start working on the bacteria that cause tuberculosis as well as new treatment pathways for the disease. They partnered with the AstraZeneca India team to identify antibacterial agents for TB at the latter’s pharma R&D centre in Bengaluru, and that was where they met V. Balasubramanian.

The trio presented a paper on how a computational model could be used to derive an effective cocktail of drugs to fight TB rather than empirically stitching together a treatment combination to Welcome Trust (world’s largest medical research charity). Competing against 125 applicants from global research centres, their paper was eventually selected for a research grant of £1 million.

However, their efforts hit a hurdle when AstraZeneca’s R&D centre was shut down in 2013 and Welcome Trust stopped the grant. In absence of the funding, the trio was asked to wrap up work by Cellworks. But the three of them knew that this work could save the lives of millions in the future and decided to take the big risk of setting up their own research firm. In 2014, they founded Bugworks.

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The trio’s first step was to concentrate on raising money and building a small but world-class team. The company garnered the support from Department of Biotechnology’s BIRAC (Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council and moved into Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platform (CCAMP).

Here the Bugworks team had access to advanced labs that could help them create a next-generation molecule to fight superbugs. While initially it was tough for them to find funding for the research, soon help began coming in the form of angel investors and grants. Ever since, the highly experienced and talented team at Bugworks has been hard at work.

While most of the designing and data research is done at its own incubation lab, Bugworks outsources its works to larger labs of Indian pharma companies, where payment is based on the time and effort. This has helped keep costs low for the young company. Bugworks is now ready to enter Phase I of clinical trials over the next 18-24 months, a big thing for a homegrown drug research company.

“Hospitals have become hotbeds for superbugs. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 1 in 25 patients worldwide will acquire an infection as a result of their hospital stay. Just imagine: You walk into a hospital to treat a minor health concern and walk out with an hospital-acquired infection (nosocomial infection) caused by a microbe that doesn’t respond to any life-saving antibiotic. It’s all over in 48 hours!

This is what we are trying to stop by designing ‘last-resort’ drugs to save lives in ICUs that would otherwise be lost to superbug infections. What is also important to us is that the new drug is kept affordable and accessible for India. So we are very particular that not only will the drug be licensed in India, it will be available at a very reasonable price, “ explains Anand, adding that Bugworks’ main aim is to address the unmet needs in public health care, not earn a big profit.

The past couple of years have seen names like Kiran Majumdar Shaw (Biocon), Dr. Devi Shetty (Narayana Healthcare) and Dr. Maharaj Kishan Bhan (former DBT secretary) join Bugworks’ advisory board. The company, which plans get into business development mode in 2019, is also working on nanomaterials and devices that prevent the transmission of hospital-acquired infections.

“There’s a long way to go, a lot of work to be done. But if we lose this battle, there really isn’t very much else. Besides, we want that day to come when it is said that India created a pathbreaking drug that is saving millions of lives across the world,” concludes the man who is aware that his work may create something valuable and tangible not just for the future of India, but also for the future of mankind.

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To contact Bugworks, click here.

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Written by Sanchari Pal

A lover of all things creative and happy, Sanchari is a biotech engineer who fell in love with writing and decided to make it her profession. She is also a die-hard foodie, a pet-crazy human, a passionate history buff and an ardent lover of books. When she is not busy at The Better India, she can usually be found reading, laughing at silly cat videos and binge-watching TV seasons.