Pune: In the recent years, cancer has become a major threat to global health. Annually, millions of new patients are being affected by this disease, causing them both physical and emotional pain. Numerous tumour types are being treated with one or more therapies and more than 70 new cancer treatments have been launched in the past five years. However, the mortality rates remain high despite advancement in the technology and limited affordability is a serious problem. Many of these drugs are not even available to patients in most of the countries, and even when registered, they may not be reimbursed under public insurance programs.
Hence, affordability, drug selectivity and side effects are the major limitations affecting cancer patients. When one thinks of an answer to such complexities, only a miracle pill seems to be a solution. Well, the Pune based startup, Oncocur India is looking at creating one. The company aims to create innovative products from cocktail of phytopharma and nanotechnological approaches. In fact, it feels that nanomedicine has the potential to address huge unmet needs of the cancer patients in affordable way.
Modest beginnings yet high spirits
Oncocur India’s foundations were laid by Dr Vijay Kanuru in 2013, with the aim to develop selective and safer nanoparticle based medicine for cancer. The initial corpus came from founder’s savings, which was used for developing proprietary nano particle formulations. The focus was then on the exploration, identification, scalability, cost effectiveness of these drug targets. After initial years of roller coaster ride, the company managed to secure angel funding from Mr Atul Sanghavi and co-promoter Mr Prem Pandey, who are instrumental in establishing Oncocur India (incorporated 2016). Subsequently, the company managed to convert the basic formulations into test drug candidates that was enabled by another co-promoter cum team members such as Ms Supriya Chaturvedi, Dr Swapnil Kamble and Dr Kishori Apte.
The company says its mission is to bring safer nano medicine based on phytochemicals for cancer treatment. The objective of the company is to develop selective and safer nanomedicine for multi drug resistant deadly cancer and more importantly targeting cancer with minimal side effects, which is the major limitation in current standard of care.
Banking on strong drug pipeline
The company has a strong pipe-line for cancer treatment and currently there are six drug candidates at various stages of development. The company’s drug pipeline is classified in to two product verticals: Nanoparticles of Phytochemicals and Nanoparticles of Herbal extracts.
Oncocur’s novel phyto-nano drug candidate efficacy has been tested against patient-derived cancer cell lines and animals. “Our pre-clinical investigation demonstrates greater efficacy as compared to standard anti-cancer drugs available in the market, more importantly with no or minimal side effects,” says Dr Vijay Kanuru, Chief Executive Officer, Oncocur India. “One of the herbal lead candidate SH215 improved efficacy and decreased toxicity of the standard drug in breast cancer animal models. “We are in the process of launching Curcumin (Turmeric extracts) anti-cancer adjuvant based ayurvedic proprietary medicine based on these findings.” adds Dr Kanuru.
Within the drug discovery domain, the Oncocur India’s focus is on nanomedicine derived from phytochemicals and the company is first among few pre-eminent nanomedicine companies in the world in this space.
The intellectual property has been filed in the form of patents by the Oncocur team and few more are underway. Its business model is more focused on developing intellectual property and realisation of patents. The first revenues are expected in 2017 through proprietary ayurvedic medicine products. The company’s founders say that its unique strength comes from the ability to understand market needs, core competency in nanobiotechnology, phytochemicals and low cost drug discovery. Besides that, more essentially the strong collaborative skills with partners and stake holders to maintain the cost effectiveness also helps the company.
“The global oncology market is expected to be $150 billion and the demand for cost effective and safer anti-cancer drugs cannot be over emphasised. As per Cancer Research UK, as high as 40 percent of cancer patients use alternative herbal based medicine along with standard of care. Therefore, we believe our nanoparticles of phytochemical drugs would be a great boon to patients primarily due to better efficacy, low drug toxicity and affordability,” added Dr Kanuru.
Moving to the next level
Talking about the challenges as far as finances are concerned, Mr Prem Pandey, Director-Marketing & Business Development, mentioned, “India is now the global hub for manufacturing generics. However, there is neither an ecosystem nor risk capital available for development of new drugs. It was quite a daunting task in the founding years to find smart investors with long term vision with certain degree of risk taking abilities in India. Despite these unfavourable conditions, we managed to raise the seed capital from couple of angels to complete the preclinical efficacy studies.”
“Cancer drug discovery is prohibitively expensive and carried out mostly in developed countries. Oncocur India’s disruptive low cost (almost 1/10th) drug discovery business model attracted me to invest in the company. Given the complementary team and more importantly founder’s, DrVijay Kanuru’s passion, exceptional technology depth along with commericial knowledge is a rare combination to take the company to the new heights.”
Mr Atul Sanghavi, Angel investor and Promoter
To overcome limited financial influx, the company has established and proven the business model already and now numerous venture capital firms are showing their interest. The founders are in talks with few of them to infuse the next round of funds that will catapult Oncocur India to conduct clinical trials.
Competition is just a cakewalk
The founders believe that they are operating in drug discovery space, a forte of small companies that is an edge they have over established pharma companies. Within the drug discovery domain, the Oncocur India’s focus is on nanomedicine derived from phytochemicals and the company is first among few pre-eminent nanomedicine companies in the world in this space. Since nanoparticle drugs are still being investigated at the academic level, the founders say they see themselves years ahead from a market perspective. The potential of nanomedicine technology is yet to be tapped but is rapidly emerging, and team envisions bright future of the company and investors.
“Dr Vijay Kanuru is a rare scientist who straddles multiple disciplines, nanotechnology and biotechnology. I am impressed by his focus on applying his knowledge to practice, and his diligent attention to scientific details as much as to commercial aspects. His passion for using technology to develop products to solve human problems at affordable cost will, I am sure, result in many successful outcomes.”
Mr Pradip Shah, Investment Advisor and founder, CRISIL
The company has already collaborated with leading academic institutes like Savitribai Phule Pune University, research institutes such as National Centre for Cell Science and APT Research Foundation. In addition, Oncocur India is closely working with prestigious Ivy league institutions such as the University of Cambridge, UK.
Govt’s handholding would be a boost
“Make-in-India is good initiative by the incumbent govt to encourage entrepreneurship and offers limited assistance in the form of tax incentives for Oncocur India’s research activities. However, the risk capital required for the discovery is astronomical and there is no established business model for creation of capital intensive knowledge in India at the moment,” says Dr Kanuru while adding, “For example in countries like in UK, even the local government and city council offer risk capital and substantial grant funding for the drug discovery startups.”
Oncocur India plans to launch couple of anti-cancer adjuvants, maintenance and prevention drugs next year from the herbal extract vertical. On the phytochemical front, it will be filing two more patents, completing preclinicals for two drugs and filing new drug application for clinical trials.
If one looks at the unmet needs of millions of cancer patients in currently available medical options, the potential of an affordable indigenous nanomedicine surely will bring smiles on sullen faces. Hope never dies!