The health and general wellbeing of women in any community are very important since in most cases, the woman is saddled with the responsibility of taking care of the family. Over the years, diabetics and cancer diseases have shortened the life span of women, sending them to an early grave. The fears of these illnesses have further compounded issues regarding the wellbeing of the woman.

There is some good news however, to ease the tension in the air with the knowledge of new pharmaceutical products which help combat and reduce to the barest minimum, the effect of these diseases.

In an exclusive interview with Amazon’s Watch Magazine’s ErukeOjuederie, the Chairperson and Managing Director, Biocon Limited India, Ms KiranMazumdar-Shaw, renowned as India’s First Lady of Biotech and Mother of Invention; talks about the effects of modern lifestyle on good health, as well as some of Biocon’s products which help combat these health conditions. Excerpt:

Statistics have revealed that between the year 2000 and 2015, there has been an increase in the number of diabetic patients in India. What will you say has caused this rise?

India, like many other developing nations, is witnessing rapid urbanization and concomitant transition from a traditional to a modern lifestyle. This is leading to dietary changes, reduced physical activity, high levels of stress, and a rise in other unhealthy behaviours, which have combined to unleash a diabetes epidemic. While there are an estimated over 65 million people with diabetes in India currently, the numbers are projected to jump to 109 million by 2035, according to the International Diabetes Federation.

Would you say your company has been successful in its quest towards reducing the cost of therapy and in the long run reducing rates of diabetes and cancer in India?

Biocon has been playing a significant role worldwide in reducing the cost of therapy for chronic conditions. Biocon entered the diabetes space over a decade back, when the disease was assuming epidemic proportions in India but treatment was by and largely inaccessible to most due to the high cost of treatment. We developed an innovative proprietary fermentation technology, which allowed us to produce recombinant human insulin (rh-Insulin) at a fraction of the cost of other makers. We thus made a significant difference to diabetes management in the country and expanded access to insulin to a much larger patient pool by making it affordable. We also launched Basalog®, a long-lasting basal Insulin Glargine for Type 1 & Type 2 diabetes, at an affordable price point in 2009. Since then, we have been addressing the large need for affordable Insulin therapy in India through our generic rh-Insulin, analogues and easy-to-use devices such as INSUPen®, a reusable pen for rh-insulin, and Basalog One™, a disposable pen for delivering Insulin Glargine. Not only have we enhanced patient access to Insulin across India through affordable therapy, but our patient-centric program Winning With Diabetes also counsels patients on managing life with diabetes through home visits and a helpline, resulting in improved diabetes management.

In our quest to make cancer care affordable, we developed and introduced BIOMAb EGFR® for head and neck cancer patients in 2006. This affordable novel monoclonal antibody therapy developed by Biocon is considered the best available treatment in its class of drugs given its efficacy and superior safety profile in terms of minimal skin toxicity.

In 2014, Biocon introduced yet another affordable therapy for breast cancer in India. CANMAb™, the world’s first follow-on Trastuzumab, provided enhanced access to affordable treatment for patients suffering from an aggressive form of breast cancer in India. Several thousand patients have benefited from Biocon’s drug since then.

As a leading insulins producer, Biocon is committed to providing affordable access to high-quality insulins to patients worldwide through our differentiated portfolio. Our aim over the next 10 years is to provide our insulin products to ‘one in five’ diabetes patients in need of insulin-based therapy anywhere in the world.

We understand that your company is working in the areas of immuno-oncology. Can you tell us more about it?

In the path-breaking area of immuno-oncology, we have built an exciting pipeline of fusion MAb molecules with the concept of preferentially delivering immune modulators to tumour sites, thereby enhancing efficacy while limiting systemic toxicity.

Your company is developing a huge portfolio of Biosimilars. Can you tell us more about it?

Biologics like insulins and monoclonal antibodies have emerged as a class of highly effective transformational life-saving drugs targeted at chronic diseases like diabetes and cancer. Given the high cost of innovator biologic therapies, follow-on biologics or biosimilarsare providing cost-effective alternatives to these expensive medicines. Biosimilarsare providing patients, physicians and payers a wider option of treatment choices as they compete with original biologic medicines across a growing range of therapy areas. Biocon is among the pioneers in bringing the benefit of high quality, yet affordable biosimilars to thousands of patients in India. Having developed and launched five biosimilars in India, we are now leveraging that experience to take a robust portfolio of biosimilars to a global patient population. We possess one of the largest global biosimilars portfolios, spanning human insulin/insulin analogues, monoclonal antibodies and other biologics with addressable market size of over USD 70 billion. Recently, Biocon’s Insulin Glargine became the first biosimilar from India to be launched in Japan, one of the world’s most stringently regulated markets. We have also recently filed for regulatory approvals of two of our key biosimilars in the EU. The advances in our clinical development programs for these life-saving therapies have positioned us among the first wave of entrants to address the biosimilars opportunity globally.

It’s been quite a start to the year with so much happening in terms of the professional leaps. How does it feel?

It has been an exciting time at Bioconas we have made significant advances in our mission to address the rising demand for safer, effective and affordable medicines worldwide. Recently, we moved a step closer towards enabling affordable access globally to a critical treatment of HER2-positive breast cancer, as the regulatory submission for our proposed biosimilarTrastuzumabwas accepted for review by European Medicines Agency. We also launched biosimilar Insulin Glarginein Japan, which is an outstanding success as Biocon is the first company in India to get a biosimilar approved by Japan’s regulatory agency.

It feels great that our capabilities have led to rapid and tangible progress which will enable access to affordable biopharmaceuticals for patients and partners across the globe.

What specific role has technology played in ensuring effective operating processes in Biocon?

Advances in technology have revolutionized life sciences by decoding diseases at the cellular and genetic level and helping usher in safer and more effective therapies for patients. Capitalizing on these advances, Biocon is developing and manufacturing biopharmaceuticals through disruptively innovative process engineering. We have built technological capabilities and expertise in an array of expression platforms that include microbial and mammalian systems. This expertise allows us to develop a rich portfolio of small molecules, novel biologics and biosimilars with economical scalability and high productivity coupled with high quality. In doing so, we are ready to bring high quality, yet affordable therapies to a global patient pool.

As a woman in a leadership position, what are some of the challenges you have encountered in getting to the top and how were you able to surmount them?

When I started Biocon in 1978, resources were limited, the available infrastructure was primitive and I had to function in a fairly hostile business environment. As a young, 25-year-old woman entrepreneur, with no business background and limited financial resources, I had to surmount a lot of credibility challenges. Professionals did not want to work for me as they felt that I could not provide them ‘job security’ being a woman, and some even assumed I was the secretary to the Managing Director (MD) and not the MD.  Suppliers told me they were reluctant to give me credit because they did not have confidence in my business abilities. Banks and financial institutions were reluctant to fund me and some even suggested that my father should be the guarantor for any loans.

I succeeded against these odds because I understood that all challenges can be surmounted with perseverance and ingenuity. I was driven by the spirit to create a business that would leverage science for the benefit of society through affordable innovation. What spurred me on this mission of making a difference to global health was the realization that a significant proportion of the world’s population does not have access to essential medicines and, where healthcare does exist, it is unaffordable.

Having worked with people from different backgrounds, how will you rate the expertise of women in your line of work?

Women are naturally blessed with special attributes like compassion, sensitivity, the ability to multi-task and the capacity to solve problems with a clear head. Moreover, women are good team players and I have seen women as team leaders are more democratic. I feel that the industry can capitalize on the contributions that women can make by ensuring a diverse corporate leadership wherein meritorious women are put at the helm of affairs. In addition, individual companies need to embed greater gender diversity into the organizational culture.

In building Biocon I have created a company where women scientists can pursue their research dreams, where women professionals can work shoulder to shoulder with their male colleagues and where men and women have mutual respect. Today, I am proud that Biocon is an equal-opportunity employer where women thrive in every role including scientific research. Of the nearly 4,000 scientists in Biocon, about 30% are women. While we do not believe in hiring women for the sake of their gender, we provide the facilities and environment they need to ensure that they are enabled and empowered.

Gender imbalance is still very prevalent in Asia. What in your opinion can be done to make women more visible?

Most Asian countries are today home to a new breed of women who exude self-confidence irrespective of what strata of society they come from. They display a sense of self-belief that allows them to excel in any domain and compete with their male counterparts on an equal footing. Many of them are outperforming their male colleagues and assuming leadership roles in their respective fields. In India, women have strong representation in middle management levels across diverse sectors like banking & financial services, information technology, pharma& life sciences, retail, engineering, consumer goods etc. India is now taking proactive steps to increase the ambit of contributions that women can make. The country has passed a law to raise women’s representation in corporate boardrooms. Moreover, initiatives have been unveiled to encourage more women entrepreneurs. India is trying to embed greater gender diversity into the nation’s cultureto help channelize the power of women in bringing in transformational change for a much greater economic value addition. I believe these initiatives can be emulated in the rest of Asia.

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