Orchid: first fundamental research collaboration

Published in The Hindu on October 2, 2008

The Chennai based Orchid Chemicals & Pharmaceuticals Ltd has taken itself to the next level of getting involved in drug discovery programmes with the signing of an agreement on September 26 with Merck & Co. It is a research and collaboration, and licence agreement with Merck.

Under the collaborative work to develop novel anti-bacterial and anti-fungal compounds, Merck will provide Orchid biological targets such as enzymes, proteins, receptors or any method by which a bug can be stopped in its tracks. It would then be up to Orchid to discover and develop a chemical compound that would be able to achieve the said purpose.

“This collaboration is unlike the earlier model where Indian companies do all the initial work and then licensing it to foreign companies,” said Dr. C.B. Rao, Deputy Managing Director of Orchid. Both Merck and Orchid would be involve the first step in the drug discovery and development process. “This is the first fundamental research collaboration for us,” he said.

Targets not identified

Orchid can also identify the targets and following Merck’s biological validation system can go about developing a chemical component. The targets on which Orchid would start its work are yet to be identified.

According to him, the collaboration would help Orchid to tap into Merck’s wide knowledge base and by successfully using both their strengths would be able to commercialise drugs much faster. While funding for the collaborative research in the form of upfront payment would come from Merck, Orchid’s contribution would be in the form of human resources and infrastructure. “We would not be providing any new money [for the collaborative research programme],” said Dr. Rao.

Apart from upfront payments during the development of the molecule, testing on animals and human clinical trials up to Phase IIa, the company would continue to receive milestone payments when Merck crosses beyond Phase IIa trial stage and right up to commercialisation. “We will get royalties after it is commercialised,” he said.

While the Chennai company has the facility to identify and develop the molecule, it has the facility to conduct animal testing only on rodents (mice, rats and hamsters). Animal testing is first done on rodents. It is then tested on higher animals such as guinea pigs, monkeys or dogs.

“Our animal house is designed for rats and mice only. We may have to sub-contract the testing on higher animals,” he said.

While Orchid has been working in the area of anti-bacterial research for a few years, anti-fungal is quite a new area of research. “We started our anti-fungal research about six months ago,” Dr. Rao said. The company has started work on a class of anti-fungal agents called HDAC inhibitors.

It initially started its research on an HDAC subtype for cancer and found one subtype that has anti-fungal properties.

He is hopeful that identifying, developing, testing on animals and then conducting the Phase I and then the Phase IIa human clinical trials for anti-bacterial and anti-fungal drugs would be possible in five years’ time. “Our aspiration is to bring it to a drug approval stage in five years’ time,” he said.

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