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Bioinformatics - The Next Revolution

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Far Eastern Economic Review





By Joanna Slater

Issue cover-dated March 22, 2001



As director of the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular
Biology, Lalji Singh used to spend all of his time surrounded by fellow
scientists. These days, though, he's almost as likely to be talking to
software executives. They're in the market for some kind of
that melds his institute's skill in researching genes with their own
for churning out computer code.

India hopes that will be an increasingly potent--and
profitable--combination. While the country declined to participate in
actual unpacking of the human genome, some experts believe India has a
unique role to play in the next stage.

"There's a huge amount of genetic data that needs to be managed and made

accessible," says Sandhya Tewari, deputy director of the Confederation
Indian Industry in New Delhi. With its strengths in science and
says Tewari, India is a natural for the emerging field of
bioinformatics--using information technology to make sense of biological


Some deals are already taking shape. Singh's CCMB has linked up with
Computer Services, one of the country's leading software firms, to
tools to sift through masses of genetic material in search of vital DNA
fragments. Eventually, Satyam hopes to sell those products while the
will take a share of the proceeds. The CCMB has also discussed possible
collaboration with three other Indian IT companies.

But bioinformatics appeals to more than just software firms. India's
pharmaceutical companies have been equally quick to sense opportunity.
Ranbaxy Laboratories and Nicholas Piramal have announced initiatives to
develop drugs using gene science to combat diseases such as diabetes.
only does India have the IT know-how to crunch the necessary data, goes
reasoning, but its enormous population is a rich potential source of
research material.

In the process, these companies are infusing a new business sense into
India's government-funded laboratories. Nicholas Piramal, for example,
created a joint venture last November called GenoMed with the
Centre for Biochemical Technology. But first it had to put a dollar
value on
the genetics expertise the centre would bring to the project. Professor
Samir Brahmachari, head of the centre's functional genomics unit,
it's the first such assessment done in India--resulting in a $1.8
"knowledge fee" for the centre over three years.

Some scientists aren't even waiting for the private sector to call. One
entrant to the fledgling bioinformatics field is Bangalore-based Strand
Genomics. Its founders? Four computer- science professors at the Indian
Institute of Science, one of India's most prestigious research

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